When Cameron Crowe directs a movie, it may be inspired (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) or it may be lousy (Elizabethtown, Vanilla Sky), but it tends to be recognizably his. That isn’t true, though, of Crowe’s latest, We Bought a Zoo. From the high-concept title to the family-friendly story line, it’s basically a Tim Allen movie, only made with taste and feeling. Matt Damon plays Benjamin, a lonely widower with two kids — his wife died six months before — who revives his lust for life by purchasing a ramshackle country house with a dilapidated zoo attached.
The zoo has been closed down for two years, and Benjamin, quitting his newspaper job, tries to get it back into shape. This means interfacing with the animals (water buffalo, porcupines, an army of snakes, a grizzly bear on antidepressants). It also means getting to know the human wildlife who staff the place. Scarlett Johansson is the comely zookeeper, and everyone else is part of a kind of boho commune (the token Crowe touch). Benjamin is supposed to be embracing the daffy-irrational, and Damon is among the most rational of actors. Yet he gives a gradually winning performance as a depressed dad coming to life. The movie is like Doctor Dolittle remade as a therapeutic sudser. By the end, it got to me. B