Warning: Spoilers. Don’t read this piece until after you have seen the film.
It’s fitting that Cameron Crowe’s official website is called The Uncool. Since hitting the Everest of critical and commercial credibility with the release of Almost Famous in 2000, Crowe has been on something of a downward slope that has seen him fall out of the popular reckoning. It began in 2002 with Vanilla Sky, his flawed but interesting remake of the Spanish drama Abre los Ojos, and hit an all-time low three years later with Elizabethtown, a sweet but critically mauled slice of unabashed Americana. We Bought A Zoo is his latest release and in the eyes of many critics, it’s continued his descent.
We Bought A Zoo is based on the story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a real-life journalist who, as the title suggests, buys a zoo. Crowe changes certain facts in telling his version of the story, moving the action to the US (Mee is English) and shifting the death of Mee’s wife to before the purchase (she died after it in reality). We Bought A Zoo therefore becomes a very Crowe-esque tale of personal transformation, as Mee makes a better life for he and his children. It’s sweet, sentimental and a little bit of a weepy (the final scene had me in tears). I loved it. On the other hand, some say it’s sickly, soppy and a little bit empty. Those people didn’t love it.
That last criticism came from The Daily Telegraph, who wrote that We Bought A Zoo suggests Crowe “ran out of things to say after Almost Famous“. It’s a bizarre point to make, not just for the obvious reason – every film has something to say – but also because We Bought A Zoo says an awful lot. Sure, it may end in uplifting fashion, but for much of its running time, the film is a melancholic rumination on death. It’s a film that explores depression and tragedy, children coming of age long before their time and the strained relationships the grim realities of life create. I suspect it would say a great many things to anyone who has suffered through similar traumas in their life.
This is by no means new territory for Crowe. From the abortion Jennifer Jason Leigh undergoes in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the loss of innocence Patrick Fugit suffers in Almost Famous, all Crowe’s films display an understanding of the tragic side of life that few critics give him credit for. We Bought A Zoo‘s tragic story not only revolves around Mee and his wife’s death, but the romantic subplot between his son Dylan (Colin Ford) and young zoo hand Lily (Elle Fanning). She’s naive and quickly takes a liking to Dylan after he moves in. She constantly visits him, bringing sandwiches as a way to show her affection, and in one scene later in the film has to tell him he’s going to move back home. He celebrates, she’s heartbroken. It’s a masterpiece of quiet devastation – Say Anything with kids. She gave him her heart, he gave her the cold shoulder…
So what’s changed? If Crowe is still making the same kind of films with the same cool soundtracks and touching plots that he was back in the 90s, why’s he now suddenly uncool? Quite simply, things have changed and Crowe’s not kept up. This is the Age of Ideas, the age of grit and darkness. Christopher Nolan, who blends both brilliantly, is probably the world’s most powerful director, and he’s got to that position with films that are dominated by big ideas rather than big emotions. The Hunger Games, currently breaking box office records around the world, is the same, entertaining notions of government power and individual freedom. The big films today are those which appeal to the head more than the heart, films that “have something to say” about Our Troubled Times. We Bought A Zoo has a monkey who hits Patrick Fugit on the head.
None of this means that Crowe’s latest films are devoid of merit, though. Far from it, in fact. We Bought A Zoo is a bold and brave piece of filmmaking that is no less personal than Almost Famous; indeed, it may be even more personal. Without wishing to pry too far into his personal life, Crowe divorced from his wife two years ago and We Bought A Zoo marks his first fiction film in six years (since Elizabethtown). It’s hard not to view the film, which focuses on the loss of a wife and a man’s search for his ability to tell stories, in this context. It’s the Crowe of 2012 embracing the future, just as Almost Famous was the Crowe of 2000 waving goodbye to his past. Both are warm and touching films. Both are classic Crowe.
I hope Crowe doesn’t wait another six years to make his fictional follow-up to We Bought A Zoo, and I certainly hope he isn’t swayed by people wondering when he’ll return to the ‘cool’ films he became famous for. If he does, he need only look back at one of those films for inspiration. At the end of Almost Famous, when William has had his article rejected by Rolling Stone and seen his friendships with Penny Lane and Stillwater crumble, he calls mentor Lester Bangs for advice. The writer does not disappoint. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world,” Bangs explains, “is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” On those terms, Crowe is the richest director in Hollywood.