Matt Damon stars in this feelgood family feature based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee. Newly widowed Benjamin (Damon) is finding life difficult trying to raise his two young children. Urged on by his father, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), to start over, Benjamin decides to purchase a rundown zoo in the countryside in the hope that it will bring his family together again. Having to care for 47 species, and with his friends thinking he's mad, Benjamin sets out to restore the zoo to its former glory with the help of a small but loyal staff led by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).
Though adapted from a memoir by a British journalist, We Bought a Zoo
feels entirely like a Cameron Crowe film, with clear parallels to previous crowd-pleasers like Jerry Maguire
. Crowe introduces Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon in a role that recalls his Contagion
character) six months after the death of his wife. Since everything reminds him of her, the California columnist decides to make a change, starting with a new location. His realtor (Curb Your Enthusiasm's
J.B. Smoove), brother (Sideways'
Thomas Haden Church), and sullen teenage son (Colin Ford) try to talk him out of it, but Mee falls in love with a country manor that comes with a strange stipulation: the tenant must manage the zoo that accompanies the property. With his daughter's blessing, Mee takes the plunge. Fortunately, he inherits an experienced staff, including MacCready (Angus MacFadyen), Robin (Patrick Fugit), Lily (Elle Fanning), and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson, lovely as ever in her least glamorous role to date). Mee's road to reinvention offers few surprises, but Damon makes him a sympathetic figure who finds the same kind of support system among the park personnel that Fugit's Almost Famous
writer found in the rock world, except Mee's relationships have more staying power. If his detractors--a skeptical employee and an unctuous inspector--feel like screenwriter constructs, Zoo
represents a return to form for Crowe after a series of missteps, including Elizabethtown
. Better yet, the real-life park that Mee acquired continues to lead by example as a humane habitat for endangered species. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
--This text refers to an alternate