MOVIE REVIEW: Damon, Jones relationship steals 'We Bought A Zoo" spotlight

In this film image released by 20th Century Fox, Scarlett Johansson, left, and Matt Damon is shown in a scene from "We Bought a Zoo." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Neal Preston) 

In this film image released by 20th Century Fox, Scarlett Johansson, left, and Matt Damon is shown in a scene from "We Bought a Zoo." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Neal Preston) 

We Bought a Zoo


2 1/2 out of 4 Stars

Starting his professional life at age 16 as a music critic for "Rolling Stone," Cameron Crowe's career took a sharp turn when the short story he wrote for "Playboy," later turned into a 1981 book, then a 1982 feature film -- "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Seven years later, Crowe wrote and directed his first feature ("Say Anything ...") and since then he has made six live-action features.

With the notable exception of two very good music documentaries ("The Union" and "Pearl Jam Twenty"), Crowe hasn't made an interesting movie since "Vanilla Sky" a decade ago and that was a commercial and (mostly) critical failure.

While not nearly as bad as the 2005 "Elizabethtown," "We Bought a Zoo" is nothing special and carries with it an overwhelming air of overeager desperation. Of the other live-action family-targeted Christmas weekend release, it is the lesser of two evils, but like "War Horse," it deals with death, loss and contains just enough intense drama and strong language to make it completely unsuitable for most of the under-10 crowd. Parents should note the movie contains strong profanity and, under the guidelines of the MPAA, should have been rated PG-13.

To Crowe's credit, he took the adaptation by Aline Brosh McKenna and overhauled it to more suit his casual style. Softening it up with some of the same flourishes that made "Jerry Mcaguire" so irresistible to adult females, Crowe goes straight for the heart-strings at almost every turn and hits his mark just over half of the time.

Understandably in a funk after the death of his wife (thankfully handled off-screen before the story starts), writer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) and his teen son Dylan (Colin Ford) are finding it hard to let go. Benjamin (not "Ben"!) has a fridge full of prepared entrees from multiple single moms hoping for some of his time and budding artist Dylan is externalizing his grief with his macabre art; something his dad likens to Charles Manson. It shouldn't come as a surprise that father and son are at odds for the majority of the film.

Acting as the perfect emollient/buffer for the two males is toddler daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), the one of the three who has the best perspective and outlook. The two best scenes in the film include Damon and Jones by themselves while dining and both could be included in a Crowe career clip reel. They are incredibly moving and economically delivered. Remember the little boy who played Renee Zellweger's son in "Jerry Maguire?" Jones gives him a big run for the money on the cuteness/adorable scale.

If it hadn't happened to the real Benjamin Mee, what comes next would be virtually impossible to swallow. Looking to start over anew, Benjamin takes his share of his (obviously wealthy) father's inheritance and buys a home in the sticks (the closest Wal-Mart is nine whole miles away!) that is located on the same property as a zoo. A disheveled, currently closed, deep-in-debt zoo.

In an only-in-the-movies manner, the zoo comes with a handful of eclectic zoo employees who share a post-Woodstock hippie mentality and amp up the quirk factor far higher than it needs to be. Two of the three females (Elle Fanning and Scarlett Johansson) will almost immediately become love interests to Dylan and Benjamin and both couplings progress in a thoroughly predictable manner.

Even with her limited, largely thankless role, Fanning offers further evidence that she will become one of the greatest actresses of her generation and Johansson continues to cement her current position as the industry's most overrated ingenue.

The movie ends in the way you might expect any holiday uplift film to do and the cockles of many hearts will be warmed, if only fleetingly. (Fox)