As a writer-director Cameron Crowe has always been somewhat hit and miss. His early films, Say Anything (1989) and Singles (1992), were fine indie dramas that enjoyed cult success but also played well to mainstream audiences. In 1996, Crowe upped the ante (and the star power) by recruiting Tom Cruise and Renée Zellweger for Jerry Maguire; one of the snappiest rom-coms to emerge from Hollywood in decades. The subsequent Vanilla Sky (2001) was a tad underwhelming, while the less said about Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), the better.
Last year, Crowe got back on track by reconnecting with his Rolling Stone roots for two acclaimed music documentaries, The Union (the story of the musical collaboration between Elton John and Leon Russell), and Pearl Jam Twenty, in which he celebrated Seattle's finest. Now the former music journalist has returned to the features ring with an adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s memoir, We Bought a Zoo.
This is the true story of the English freelance journalist who, six years ago, purchased a dilapidated 33-acre zoo on the edge of Dartmoor as a retirement home for his mother. The purchase saved the lives of over 200 animals but it also helped to heal his young family following the death of Mee’s 40-year-old wife, Katherine, from a brain tumour.
In adapting Mee’s story for the big screen, Crowe has made a few, er, changes. The movie is now set in Southern California; the bald, unprepossessing Mee is portrayed by Matt Damon, a Hollywood hunk with lustrous locks, and it’s doubtful whether any of Mee’s zoo staff looked anything like Scarlett Johansson, but hey, that’s Hollywood.
In fairness to Crowe, he has successfully retained the against-all-odds elements of the story that made the original memoir such a compelling tale. And though the narrative does edge into saccharine territory at times, the good points outweigh the bad. Among these good points is a strong central performance from Damon, here putting his Bourne testosterone aside to play a caring, grief-stricken family man with a dream. Also good are Elle Fanning and Thomas Haden Church in supporting roles and, best of all, young Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays Damon’s daughter, Rosie, as a seven-year-old going on 70.
This being a Cameron Crowe movie, the soundtrack is noteworthy, consisting of a selection of bespoke tracks from Jónsi (he of Sigur Rós fame), some of which were co-written by Crowe himself.
Even if you don’t buy the zoo, or the memoir, or the movie about the memoir; you might want to buy the soundtrack album.