Matt Damon was interviewed on ‘The Daily Show’ recently with Jon Stewart. In the interview, he related how producers didn’t really want to make the film, because the story of a guy who bought a zoo was probably not something they’d normally go for. I mean, how realistic is that? Well, pretty realistic, as it turned out, because it was actually based on a true story. There is indeed a Benjamin Mee, and he did buy a zoo. Nevertheless, you could see why certain power brokers in Hollywood would not be all that keen on it, beyond Matt Damon’s involvement as the film’s star.
“And then I told them, ‘Oh, Cameron Crowe’s directing the film’. And the response was, “Well, why didn’t you tell us earlier?!” And so the film got made. This was how I actually found out that the director’s Cameron Crowe, and this was the moment I got a little more excited about the film.
Though I was wondering why Matt Damon’s head was bald. Was Sarah Silverman too rough on him? (Answer: it was for his film, ‘Elysium’)
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is not the name for a culinary delight to be found anywhere in Asia (at least, not that I know of). Rather, he is a recently widowed father of two, and in short, his life is falling apart around him. Ever since his wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) passed on, he has been reminded of how big a part of his life she was. I suppose that happens when space and memory are constructed as one and the same, and it’s not helping that his son Dylan (Colin Ford), is not being the most helpful of sons either. Rebelling with a cause, he purposely got himself suspended from school. Thankfully, his 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is not quite so difficult, being of the oh-so-cute-I-want-to-pinch-her-cheeks prototype.
Upping sticks, looking for a new place, he chances upon a large house which he really likes. However, there is a caveat: the house is attached to a zoo, and whoever who buys the house, must take on the zoo as well, including its keepers such as Lily (Elle Fanning), Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen) and the lovely Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson). Not looking for a chance to make out with her, he sees it as the perfect opportunity for a brand new start, even as everyone else around him, especially his brother Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church), thinks he’s losing his head. “If you won’t listen to me, your brother, then listen to your brother, the accountant.” Or something like that. It doesn’t help that in order for him to open the zoo, it would have to pass inspections from the board, represented here in the form of the film’s soft villain in Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins). Challenge accepted, then.
I have to say that the film is ultimately very formulaic. That is not necessarily a bad thing, however, because this film also manages to hit all the emotional spots for me. A large part of the inspiration comes from the book this film is based on, though changes are and have been made for the benefit of the silver screen audience. You know how it goes. The single father, grieving from his wife’s death, eventually heads towards happier endings. He finds love again, the son made in his image does not resist him any longer. In short, all the fuses messed up in the beginning is sparked back into life towards the end. I have no problems with that.
The question, then, comes from how this formula pans out. 1 + 1 could be 2, or it could be 11 (dependings on how far you want to go, of course. If I have a piece of paper, I could show how that formula equates to a window). I believe the one element that drives to set this film out to be different is the director, Cameron Crowe. Though he does not have a perfect record, I feel that his collection of sentimental works can be a positive experience if the timing’s right. ‘Elizabethtown’ didn’t quite hit the spot, but surprisingly, that was his last feature film till now. I had thought of him as a more prolific director than that, but I am glad he is back all the same.
Examples of this can be seen in the sweetness of the young love between Lily and Dylan. It harks back to a time when people looked out to the stars instead of Googling stars on their Galaxy tab. In a sense, a deeper look at the film considers as well the separation between the urban and the rural, the modern and the traditional. Nostalgia, that sense of longing for something no longer there, is a key thing here. It affects everyone, from Benjamin who’s obviously looking to stop grieving, to Kelly who wishes for the zoo to be opened again, to even the cashier at the local supermarket. Everyone here is looking to fill the gap in their life, whether they know it or not.
One technique I’d like to bring to your attention is the separation between life and the lifeless. The screen here is an important attribute. When Rosie couldn’t sleep because of their noisy neighbours (no, not Manchester City) when they were back in the city, Ben and Rosie sat there on their beds, looking at the happening party happening right outside their window, their gazes reflected in the window’s glass. Later on, we see Ben also going through some pictures of his wife on his laptop. Once again, it suggests a clear separation between something that exists in this world and in your hearts and minds. The difference between them is collapsed at strategic points of the film, and I heartily applaud the director for doing so. Reality and dreams and memories need not exist exclusively from one another.
With that in mind, with all the “20 seconds of insane courage” dialogue, I would heartily recommend this film to…well, anyone. It is a promoted as a family film, breaking, in the process, two of the rules in filmmaking (never work with children or animals). Perhaps like me, you won’t be able to separate Matt Damon from Jason Bourne (at one point, Ben was asked why he bought the zoo. I imagined the long ensuing pause to be followed by: “I’m Jason Bourne, bitch.”). Perhaps, unlike me, this is not necessarily your cup of tea. You might not be happy with your 2, but I’m more than happy with my 11.
Thank you, Cameron Crowe. Welcome back.
Fikri’s girlfriend paid for this one.