Cameron Crowe doesn't make it easy to dislike his new movie, the warmhearted, cute-kid-wielding, music-montaging, animals-are-awesome-reminding We Bought a Zoo. Give me a minute, though, and I'll try.
For starters, there's no scene in which stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson have outdoor sex and are then eaten by lions while Neil Young's "Cocaine Eyes" plays. This is not for lack of Neil Young, whose "Cinnamon Girl" gets a high-profile moment on the soundtrack. This is Crowe's, like, 25th movie in a row that times out for music more often than an episode of The Monkees does. (Crowe sustained some sort of head injury around the time he made Vanilla Sky — a console radio fell on him while tuned to an FM station.) Seriously, Crowe's habit of keeping whatever lively classic-rock temp track he dreamed up while cutting a movie has gone far enough. What once was a savvy expression of cultural currency, demonstrating a Martin Scorsese-like intuition for the musical rhythms of character and editing, is now a deeply exasperating crutch. If that sounds hysterical, it's only because you haven't yet endured Tom Petty's 1985 "Don't Come Around Here No More" as the cue to feel ... well, to feel something as the film's teenage boy is expelled from school.
Crowe has based his movie on Benjamin Mee's airport-friendly memoir of the same title. It's the story of a widower and father who finds solace and episodes of Preston Sturges-like madcappery as the unlikely live-in owner of an animal sanctuary. Damon plays Mee, whose pocket zoo comes with a staff, led by Johansson and including Almost Famous star Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning and assorted lovable loose screws. As an adventure-addicted reporter in dad jeans, Damon is only a little more believable than he was as talented gay murderer Tom Ripley, but we don't go to Matt Damon movies for rich characterization. We go because Damon gives off the man-with-a-plan surety of Tom Cruise (before Cruises's intensity devolved into mania). There's precious little of that here, though, and Damon is miscast. Mugging children, cute animals, a dead wife — this is prime 1990s Robin Williams material.
Crowe courted Damon for the role with the pitch that he'd written the Zoo screenplay with Local Hero in mind. Who would say no to that? Bill Forsyth's 1983 movie, about an oil-company hatchet man who falls in love with the Scottish town he's been sent to dismantle, remains the template for any comedy meant to scan as indie, low-key, quirky or inoffensively foreign. Oh, how welcome a Local Hero-like return to form would have been for Crowe, following the fascinating misfire Vanilla Sky and the relentlessly stupid Elizabethtown. But Zoo plays more like one of Disney's live-action B-movies from the late 1960s — vintage Kurt Russell stuff, like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
Are there pleasures here at all? Sure. Remember Jonathan Lipnicki from Crowe's Jerry Maguire? Maggie Elizabeth Jones out-Lipnickis the original as the littlest Mee, a scene stealer who belongs in a 1930s two-reeler. And then there's Thomas Haden Church, giving his dude-bro all to the thankless part of Damon's brother. He's second only to Andy Serkis among this year's movie apes, and he gets two opposable thumbs up.