Matt Damon has had a strong career playing hard-edged, serious guys like Jason Bourne or the title character in Good Will Hunting. So you forget his aptitude for comedy. He brought it to 30 Rock, just as he did for the Farrelly brothers in Stuck on You.
Still, I don't know if I was ready to see Matt Damon play a Fred MacMurray role, as he does in We Bought A Zoo. Not that that's a bad thing -- Damon still summons a boyish energy with little effort and it works for him here, in Cameron Crowe's new film.
Based on a true story, Zoo casts Damon as Benjamin Mee, adventure journalist (from those golden days when newspapers actually paid for that sort of thing) who has lost his enthusiasm for his work since the death of his wife. He's also distracted by problems with his 15-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) who is about to be expelled from school for drawing disturbing pictures -- and, most recently, for stealing.
Ben decides the only thing that can keep him involved in his kids' lives is to move them someplace less menacing than suburban Los Angeles, less full of distractions. So he is looking in the San Fernando Valley (or so it appears) and falls for a great old house, only to discover two crucial things: The house is part of a larger property -- and that larger property includes an actual zoo with exotic animals.
If Ben wants a distraction from his own life, here it is -- complete with a mean zoo inspector (a very funny John Michael Higgins) a sadly aging tiger -- and a hot zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson). It's perfect for his 5-year-old daughter, Rosie, played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who is, perhaps, the cutest tot since Shirley Temple (even if her adorability is milked too extensively by Crowe, a la Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire).
The mug at Damon's elbow is Ben's brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) who has lived vicariously through his little brother but can't countenance him blowing everything he has on an actual zoo. And Ben learns that he needs more than a positive attitude to finesse his way past challenging zoological duties, including head zookeeper Johansson.
Crowe's story-telling is straightforward, even a little retro. But he understands that stories like these, about people working their way through painful feelings they don't understand, have their own specific gravity and their own pace. The conclusion is foregone, but Crowe still makes the journey emotionally satisfying by being judicious with the schmaltz.
Well, judicious is a relative term. Jones is an engagingly natural young actress who has been encouraged to mug like one of the Little Rascals. And yet she makes it work.
Johansson has to play something of a hard-ass as the divorced zookeeper who just wants to keep her wildlife sanctuary viable and her animals healthy. The romantic aspects are more about developing chemistry than anything else.
Damon has always had a sincere nature, even as a cold-blooded killer. He's a natural playing a concerned father trying to keep his dream afloat, even as it threatens to bankrupt him. He's a nice guy in a challenging spot, trying to maintain his sense of grace -- and doing it.
We Bought a Zoo is one of what is becoming a crowded seasonal field of movies with something to appeal to each of several generations. The bottom line, of course, is that it has to be a confident, entertaining movie -- and this one is.
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