"Most people nowadays are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They're scared to save money, and they're scared to spend it."
That was spoken in 1938 by Jean Arthur, playing one of the few conventional characters in Frank Capra's Oscar winning adaptation of "You Can't Take It with You". That film, a controlled madhouse of eccentric charm and patriarchal pathos, may feel dated in some regards, but make no mistake, the themes Capra and his grand cast hit upon (tweaking the celebrated stage play considerably) resonate now just as ever. In Capra, an underdog would get a societal and/or bureaucratically induced emotional beat down, only to emerge a better man for it. Sentimental and overly idealistic at times, sure, but Capra went places and said things in his time with a resonant precision that is still celebrated today. It's been pronounced before by louder voices than mine, but they don't make movies like that anymore. Except...
Leave it to Cameron Crowe to turn back the clock. Not in an obvious or showy way like other cinematic nostalgia trips this holiday season ("Hugo", "The Artist" - both worthy of your attention, by the way), but in a more subdued and dare I say humble way. His latest, the rightly innocuous but thoroughly enjoyable "We Bought a Zoo" (a light comedy adaptation of Benjamin Mee's 2008 autobiographical book of the same name), starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, could be called a Capra film for today - except that Capra probably could've made almost the exact same film in his time. (With Jean Arthur in the Johansson role and James Stewart in the Damon part if we're being wishful, Joel McCrea if we're being honest.)
Driven from society by family tragedy (Damon's character's wife died prior to the events of the film, leaving him with a dejected young teen son and a starry-eyed little daughter) and the inability to fit into the narrowing confines of his profession (columnist), he opts to chuck it all, sell the house, pack up the kids, and then do what any sensible, well-grounded individual would do - buy a forgotten, dilapidated zoo on the edge of town. What does a middle aged average joe newspaper writer know about taking care of exotic animals? Zero of course, but that's nothing that a Hollywood character's unusually deep checkbook, the right help, and a truckload of goodwill can't rectify. It would all be too easy to dismiss if not for the fact that a version of this actually happened not long ago.
All throughout "We Bought a Zoo", in the corners of the unreliable bear habitat and in the overdressed pop culture zookeeper bar on the entrance of the property, the filmmaker's personal reflecting can be glimpsed. Following the self-prophesied fiasco that was 2005's "Elizabethtown", many a critic saw fit to throw Cameron Crowe into a cage, and then toss the key. The harsh fallout from that film, a misunderstood if also unwieldy ode to the latter comedies of Billy Wilder, may've squashed the director's winning momentum (which peaked at the excellently self-indulgent "Almost Famous") like an elephant sitting on a Volkswagen, but in retrospect it also forced him to regroup, re-evaluate, and perhaps soak up a dose or two of humility.
Here we have a once-celebrated, recently divorced auteur filmmaker utilizing the uplifting spirit of Hollywood's bygone age to bounce back in today's dismal landscape. To do so, he's chosen a story in which when the world tries to cage a writer (clearly how Crowe still sees himself, even after all this time in the movie business), the writer will break away and turn the cage into a familiar "enclosure". Then he and his crew will convert the enclosure into something that passes inspection with even the Scroogiest of critics, and proceed to open to a backlog of residual goodwill. Crowe does all of this with directorial confidence that far exceeds the berth of the material. Is his making "We Bought a Zoo" as crazy a gesture as Damon (as Mee) actually buying a zoo, and moving in to live there? Not hardly; although the story fits more within Crowe's wheelhouse than any other working filmmaker out there. (Remember, this is the guy who made angry grunge rock wondrous earlier this year with his documentary "Pearl Jam Twenty"
.) But "We Bought a Zoo" is not the kind of movie that Hollywood cares to make these days. Too square, too old fashioned. But by gum, he made it anyhow, and he made it pretty well. It may not change anyone else's life, but it is a well-meaning throwback in sensibility that will have a long afterlife on cable and international flights.
Damon, having grown quickly comfortable in slightly pudgy young dad roles, does well in his part of a man who, although he finds himself in over his head in a way he he'd never foreseen, has all he needs right in front of him. Perhaps he'd quote James Stewart's character from "You Can't Take It with You" when he says, "You know, every time I think about how lucky I am, I feel like screaming." But more to the point, he can in some way relate with the grand checking-out wish fulfillment fantasy-gone-right of Grandpa in that film, who recalls a fateful trip into work thirty-five years ago: "One morning, when I was going up in the elevator... it struck me I wasn't having any fun. So I came right down and never went back." And life has been a zoo ever since - perhaps not something to be unafraid of, but nevertheless a wild breakaway from the fear of the day to day.
- Jim Tudor
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