We Bought a Zoo (Also Blu-ray) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Cameron Crowe, 2011 (20th Century Fox)
1. Once Upon a Time, There were all these animals…
In Cameron Crowe’s new movie We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon — using every bit of nice guy vibes at his disposal — plays an idealistic, likable L. A. Times writer, widower and dad named Benjamin Mee. Mee, looking for a little fulfillment, moves his family into a country house that comes with an animal park attached (complete with lions, and tigers and bears and snakes) — and then finds he has to fight to keep the park going and all its employees (including Scarlett Johansson, Patrick Fugit and Angus Macfadyen, the Orson Welles of Tim Robbins’ The Cradle Will Rock) employed, and all its animals happy and photogenic.
The movie is based on real life — though it’s a reality that’s been pretty thoroughly changed and scrubbed and movie-ized. The original Benjamin Mee was a Britisher who had his park/home in Dartmoor, His wife died months after he moved to the Zoological Park. And the movie’s writers (Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, of The Devil Wears Prada) have concocted two romances — between Benjamin and the adorable zoo manager Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson at her sparkliest) and between Ben‘s bad-tempered delinquent teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and teen belle Lily Miska (Elle Fanning, at her most fetching) — that seem about as real as a couple of teddy bears thrown casually on a pillow-pile.
So do all the transparently phony deadlines and animal escapes and unlocked cages and various other crises — including checkups by the skeptical zoo certifier, Ferris, as played by John Michael Higgins — that deluge Benjamin and his brood. (The most notable of the Mee Generatio is seven-year-old scene-swiper Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones.))
Benjamin also has a brother, Duncan the accountant, a mensch who tries to get him to make more prudent investments, and drops funny lines — though not as many as he‘s capable of, considering that he‘s played by the very funny Thomas Haden Church, Paul Giamatti’s horndog buddy in Sideways.
If only We Bought a Zoo could do for zoos what Sideways did for wine, we’d all be in clover and up tp our knees in humane enclosures. But though I’m a big fan of zoos myself (especially San Diego’s and the giraffe and bear enclosures at The Lincoln Park Zoo) and though this is a likable movie, full of likable people, and likable animals and though star Matt Damon is a very paragon of likeability, the movie just vanishes out of your mind (or mine at least) after you leave. Part of that may be due to the fact that the animals aren’t characterized enough. They’re in a lot of reaction shots, but except for the moody oldster and Bengal Tiger Spar, who is there to pluck our heart strings, and the bear, who’s there to escape and give us a few thrills, the animals tend to recede to the backgrounds. I kept worrying that they might wander off bored while the humans indulged in their various love affairs.
2. Once Upon a Time, He had us at “Hello.”
As many have noted, Cameron Crowe hasn’t seemed himself since Elizabethtown. Or Vanilla Sky. For that matter, he hasn’t seemed himself since his great coming-of-age rock n‘ roll comedy Almost Famous. Remnants of Crowe’s old Rolling Stone rock n’ roll press credentials are still visible here, in the soundtrack tubes by Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens (a good one, from Harold and Maude).
But though Crowe spent years gabbing with that hilarious bittersweet movie comedy genius Billy Wilder while compiling their excellent interview book “Conversations with Wilder,” it’s precisely Wilder’s acid (but likable) touch that Crowe is missing now. Where are the Walter Matthau lines in this movie? Higgins has them as Ferris the skeptical inspector, I guess, though, compared to Whiplash Willie Gingrich, he’s a feather duster.
I’m being too rough. After all, nobody’s perfect. We Bought the Zoo is a very nice movie, which can be cheerfully recommended to your whole family, even your crazy uncle and, of course, the family dog. It has lots of congenial people and animals, all acting well. (Name me a more sympathetic leading man than Matt Damon — except of course to his illiberal detractors.) And it has lots of animals and kibitzers lovingly photographed by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros). You could do worse. You could do better too. This story, left in England and less drastically altered, could have made a fine eccentric British comedy, for someone like, say, Steve Coogan as Mee. (It’s actually more of an old Jack Lemmon role.) As long as it had some funny lines.
What the movie lacks is enough humor. Humor, Mr. C. remember? The spoonful of acid (medicine) that makes the sugar go down? Comedy doesn’t kill sentiment after all; often it can heighten it. Ah well, you can’t have everything, including snakes. And this is a movie that should have had me at Grrrr…
NO MAN OF HER OWN (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Mitchell Leisen, 1950 (Olive Films)
The first of three wildly divergent movie versions of Cornell Woolrich’s novel “I Married a Dead Man,” this bizarre blend of domestic drama and film noir stars noir queen Barbara Stanwyck as Helen Ferguson, a ruthlessly abused, jilted (by Lyle Bettger, no less, as slimy Steve) and pregnant city gal , who, on a train ride home, tumbles into a bog of false identity and blackmail. After Bettger gives Babs the boot (preferring blonde femme fatale Carole Mathews), Helen meets a generous young couple, Patrice and Hugh Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter and Richard Denning) on the train, and then is mistaken for Patrice, after the train crashes and many (including the nice couple) die.
It’s a prototypical Woolrich “trap” plot. Since no one in the immediate Harkness family, except Hugh, ever met Patrice, Helen more or less falls into the deception. The Harkness household, especially matriarch Mrs. Harkness (Jane Cowl), accepts her as their new kin, and accepts her baby as Hugh’s — while Hugh’s brother Bill (John Lund of Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair) falls in love with her. What happens next? Well, I doubt if you realize how slimy Lyle Bettger can get.
Stanwyck suffers wonderfully here, and she almost single-handedly makes the implausible seem inevitable. Jane Cowl, a one-time early 20th century Queen of Broadway, who crammed in a few movie roles at the end of her life (she was dying of cancer when she made this one), is touching as Mrs. Harkness. The movie doesn’t really start cooking until Bettger reappears, and by then, they seem to expect us to swallow anything. (Even if you can’t, it’s murderous fun )
The original novel “I Married a Dead Man,” which Woolrich signed with his preferred pen name “William Irish” makes more sense than the No Man script (which was co written by that estimable small town scribe Sally Benson, of Meet Me in St. Louis), and Woolrich/Irish’s book was republished in a very classy Library of America edition called “Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and ‘40s,” alongside James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Horace McCoy’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and Edward Anderson’s “Thieves Like Us.” The other film adaptations of “Dead Man“ include a 1982 French version by Robin Davis, starring Nathalie Baye and Madeleine Robinson, and a weird 1996 comedy version, directed by Richard Benjamin, starring Ricki Lake and (as the mother) the wondrous Shirley MacLaine. That one is called Mrs. Winterbourne. A better title might have been “I Married a Madhouse.”
The French Shadow was the best of them so far. There’s room for another — though No Man of Her Own isn’t bad. But turning the nightmarish “I Married a Dead Man” into a kooky comedy still seems a little misguided, the results a little forced and even a little slimy — though not as slimy as Lyle Bettger.