Cameron Crowe and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Let me preface this by saying that the films of Cameron Crowe have meant a great deal to me. Say Anything…, Singles, Jerry Maguire and especially Almost Famous all pass the TNT test. (The true test of a great film being whether or not you can sit through the film on a network like TNT, commercials and all.) They are few and far between, but I never fail to circle my calendar when a new release date is announced. When We Bought a Zoo came around the Bay Area some time after Christmas, it was the first of six films I saw in one 36 hour period in order to catch up with the onslaught of holiday releases.

Tangent: This is nothing new to me. In my younger years I made it a ritual to see movies in huge doses. The holidays made this easy due to the sheer number of films released and the idle time Christmas break affords you as a teenager. However, the older I get, the less fun it has become until this year when it became a downright war of attrition. I was so exhausted and my ass was so sore that I completely scrapped the story I had planned to write detailing the experience and contemplated never going to see another movie again. Hyperbolic and in the end untrue, yes, but when you’re fighting to stay awake during a 10pm showing of War Horse, these are the things you think about.

Anyways, back to We Bought a Zoo. It is not a good film. Sure, Matt Damon and his luscious head of hair are very winning as per usual, but the the combination of a very, very, very tired “Dirty Dozen” Aesthetic and Scarlett Johannson’s single note delivery/lack of depth, the film left me feeling manipulated and a little cold.  The film’s title says all you need to know about the film, but I digress. A recently widowed father drags his two precocious children (Imagine that!) to a decrepit zoo, where they meet a band of (wait for it…) rough-around-the-edges, yet, extremely lovable animal lovers and embark on a voyage of self discovery in which everyone in the film learns something and transforms into their very best selves (Pure saccharine.) Of course this kind (the worst kind) of filmmaking is completely justified simply because it’s based on a true story. Hey, everyone loves to needs a good cry.

Tangent #2: On Scarlett Johannson: Man, what happened? All the promise and vulnerability displayed in Ghost World and Lost in Translation has been laid to waste in horrible film after horrible film. Check out her imdb page; with the exception of the work she did with Woody Allen, it reads like the Razzie nominations.)

Unfortunately,We Bought a Zoo is just another example of the ever growing problem as it pertains to Cameron Crowe’s career as a writer/director. In a canon that peaked with Almost Famous, each film that has followed has felt increasingly shallow and derivative. Vanilla Sky, in which Crowe tried to install his pop sensibilities into philosophical science fiction was a movie I loved this film upon first seeing it, but watching it now, a stiff breeze could blow it over. I mean really, are we really expected to care about a rich playboy without scruples, who screws over the wrong girl? Follwing “Sky” was Elizabethtown, which I have constantly referred to as either the film I liked a lot more when it was called Garden State or the film in which we realized that Orlando Bloom will never be a movie star.

Tangent #3: I don’t want to get all meta on you, but Elizabethtown feels derivative of a film that itself owed a lot to earlier Crowe films. Garden State even nailed the use of popular music to push the story forward. An aspect of filmmaking Crowe has mastered. Go figure. 

While even the most ardent lover of Crowe’s films would attest, none of his movies are perfect (Though, Almost Famous comes pretty damn close.) By in large Crowe’s films are made up of one indelible moment after another that imprints itself on your subconscious. I can’t tell you how many times, I have thrown in Say Anything… just to watch the exchange between Cusack and Mahoney during the dinner sequence or Cusack’s steely defiance in the scene with the jukebox. I always get a chuckle at the truth he mines in the scene in Jerry Maguire in which a euphoric Tom Cruise scans the radio dial to find the right soundtrack to what he’s feeling and lands on Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” and I cannot tell you how many times I have sung along to “Tiny Dancer” with the cast of Almost Famous. Never has a filmmaker had such a knack for creating scenes so funny, so painfully truthful that they keep you coming back for more. Not that Vanilla Sky or Elizabethtown are without moments like these. I defy anyone to find finer approximations of what burgeoning romance feels like than in the courtship between Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in “Sky” (Man, “Solsbury Hill” is a great fucking song!) or the telephone conversation between Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown” (Yet, another great use of music and my introduction to Ryan Adams.) Moments like these are fleeting and they simply do not carry the film.

In We Bought a Zoo, he seems to be searching for these moments, never quite finding them, instead relying on Matt Damon’s toothy smile and a well timed music cue.  Due to my love of his earlier films, I’m still rooting for Cameron Crowe, so here’s to hoping he gets his groove back.

We Bought a Zoo is out on DVD and Blu-ray today. Rent it from Redbox, get it delivered by Netflix, but under no circumstances buy it. I don’t care what Wal-Mart is selling it for.

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