19/05/2012 § Leave a comment
We Bought a Zoo is SWPL crack through and through. It has all the hallmarks of SWPL stuff: based on a true story, token upbeat black guy, non-traditional family, faux-deep personal crisis, Matt Damon, and an unbelievably hipster soundtrack (I believe I heard the sounds of “Holocene” by Bon Iver at one particularly emotional point). Interestingly, the film tends to adhere to generally upper-middle class morals, though they remain unspoken and more or less unacknowledged. Really, the movie appeals to the ethos of what David Brooks refers to as the Bohemian Bourgeoisie.
The story centers on Benjamin Mee—played by Matt Damon—as he struggles to cope with the loss of his wife. Some attention is paid to his children, Dylan and Rosie, as they struggle with the loss of their mother, but the bulk of the movie is centered on Benjamin. Mee knows that he can’t stay in the same small town where he met and married his wife, because there are too many memories and he’s having a hard time letting go. His son is acting up in school because he doesn’t know how to cope with the grief, and so he gets expelled. Rosie seems more upbeat, occasionally acting as the adult that’s holding the family together, in part because she isn’t old enough to understand death and loss, let alone struggle with it. In fact, it’s later revealed that she doesn’t even really understand that her mother is dead.
Since a change of scenery is in place, Mee sets out to search for a new house. This is when he runs into the token wise black character™ who happens to be a realtor that’s new to town. These scenes are generally amusing, but they feel a little self-conscious. Mee eventually settles on buying an old zoo, mostly because his daughter seems rather excited about the prospect of living in a zoo. Dylan is decidedly less enthusiastic about it, mostly because he’s allergic to work, and also because he doesn’t want to move away from his friends.
Nonetheless, Mee decides to go ahead with his purchase and moves the family there. Everything seems to work out at first, but drama quickly sets in. For starters, the nearest Target is nine miles away—and that’s just one way! Viewers are reminded of this every scene, probably because the scriptwriters had sold some product placement to Target. Or maybe they’re just trying to convey to the assumedly SWPL crowd just how far away from civilization this zoo really was.
The problems escalate from there: the zoo’s accountant tells everyone that Benjamin is running out of money, which causes the zoo staff to distrust and ignore Mee. Benjamin’s brother, Duncan, continually tries to talk Benjamin out of running the zoo. Dylan starts complaining about how much his life sucks now that he can’t hang out with his friends, and how they never come around. Also, half the staff is crazy.
Anyhow, Benjamin pushes through all this adversity by firing his accountant and sinking every last penny he has into the zoo, including his wife’s secret insurance policy. He has a heart-to-heart with his son, in a surprisingly emotional scene. Even Duncan comes around.
During all this time, Benjamin begins to work through his grief, with the help of the head zookeeper, Kelly Foster, who is played by Scarlett Johansson. The film kind of hints at a romantic relationship between the two, with Mee being the hopeless romantic who is still very much in love with his ex-wife and Foster being an Asperger-y failure with men, with lots of hate to show for it. One highlight of the film is how nothing comes of this storyline. Because love stories are basically a cliché at this point, it’s refreshing to see the complete lack of resolution at the end of the film.
There are a couple of interesting side threads. One is about the zoo inspector, the other is about Dylan discovering love for the first time.
The zoo inspections are rather entertaining because the zoo inspector, Walter Ferris, is played by the inimitable John Michael Higgins. Higgins brings his usual quiet hilarity to the role, which makes for some laughs. In many ways, his role in the film is similar to his role as Wayne Jarvis in Arrested Development. Anyhow, his time on the screen is quite entertaining, especially since he’s portrayed as the villain.
Dylan’s side story is also rather funny in its own way. Kelly Foster has a thirteen-year-old niece named Lily Miska—who is homeschooled, natch—that works at the zoo. Lily develops a crush on the fourteen-year-old Dylan, who is quite naturally the only game in town, so to speak. Dylan is quite oblivious to all this, though he doesn’t seem all that put out by Lily bringing him sandwiches every afternoon. Lily hangs on to his every word in her own socially awkward way; Dylan is kind of annoyed by her, at least at first. When Lily hears that the Mees might be moving away, she goes to Dylan to confirm whether this is true. She approaches this subject rather tactfully, as young girls are wont to do. Dylan, not realizing that she’s asking him instead of telling him that he’s supposed to be moving away, begins to celebrate his departure, thus crushing Lily’s feelings. This story line eventually resolves itself rather satisfactorily, and leads to a rather useful life lesson for young male viewers.
The film is rather fun to watch, the occasional self-consciousness of the writers and director notwithstanding. The filmography is bright and lush, the soundtrack is quite moving, though a little overbearing at times, and the acting is generally superb. Damon does most of the heavy lifting (his solo scene in the kitchen is a textbook example of conveying emotion using just facial expressions), and ScarJo certainly helps out. John Michael Higgins also pulls his own weight, even if his appearance is brief. Even Colin Ford (Dylan Mee) does a commendable job for his age, as does Maggie Elizabeth Jones (Rosie Mee). The supporting cast is commendable, though no one really stands out.
In all, the film is definitely worth the two hours it takes to watch it. The film isn’t not particularly family friendly, as Dylan’s initial storyline is rather dark; there’s also some swearing (unnecessarily so, in my opinion). That said, the story mostly works, the actors have good chemistry and are quite believable, and there’s no element that is particularly clunky.