In 2006, a man by the name of Benjamin Mee bought a zoo alongside his mother and his brother. He had no experience with animals and, in fact, his offer to buy the zoo was originally rejected based on his inexperience. The zoo had been closed earlier that year and it was Mee’s plan to refurbish and reopen to the public as soon as possible. His wife, Katherine, died after he and his family had already moved to the zoo but he soldiered on with his two young children and eventually brought the zoo back up to code. Mee’s story is unorthodox and inspirational and thanks to famed film director, Cameron Crowe, it has now been sucked of all genuine heart and humanity and turned into a ridiculous and laughable “true story” film called WE BOUGHT A ZOO.
Buying a ticket to WE BOUGHT A ZOO is less about buying into what actually happened and more into a Hollywood idea of what should have happened in order for audiences to understand the inspiration in Mee’s journey. On screen, Mee is played by Matt Damon, who cannot seem to choose a decent project these days. For the purposes of the film, Mee’s wife is already dead when we meet him. In fact, it is her absence in his life that propels him to buy the zoo in the first place. He is looking to find meaning in his life again and boy does he need it. Crowe paints Mee’s life as one big giant cliche – from desperate single mothers bringing him lasagna six months after his wife’s passing to his brother (Thomas Haden Church) making broad suggestions that he just needs to get back out there. Even his eldest son is painting gothic imagery in school so you know that things are not good. Hence, the zoo.
Thank goodness for Damon. He elevates past the triteness of every scene to reveal true pain and difficulty in dealing with the loss of his wife and the scary, new direction of his life. Crowe frames him in close-up so often, it is impossible to miss any part of his emotional journey but despite Damon’s best efforts, he cannot save WE BOUGHT A ZOO from Crowe’s completely crazy approach to the rest of the film. Almost every character other than Damon’s is an exaggerated farce. (You cannot convince me for one second that supposed zookeeper, Scarlett Johansson, knows anything about wild animals.) Perhaps this is meant to show how bizarre the world seems in Damon’s state of grief but it really only comes off as disingenuous and distracting. Benjamin Mee is a real person who really bought a zoo but all Crowe seems to see is the movie, not the man, and he barely has a handle on that as it is.