Friday, December 30, 2011

Cameron Crowe: An Authentic American Experience? (We Bought a Zoo)

Matt Damon, We Bought a Zoo, 20th Century Fox, 2011.

The underpinnings of humanity, what makes us human and connects us, has always been a fascination of the charismatic penman and persuasive optimist Cameron Crowe's body of work. Beginning with his novel turned debut screenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he sought the purest form of human emotion and narratively constructed it to affect us more effectively. Some would call it manipulation; in Crowe's hands I call it sublimation. His roots as a rock 'n' roll journalsit turned him on to nuance, structure, and emotion, and how these things can shape how we look at the world. His second script, The Wild Side, was a continuum of his preoccupation with the social constructs of teenagers growing up too fast.

He continued this train of thought with his well done teen love story directorial debut, Say Anything. With Singles, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, Crowe has solidified his reputation as one of America's great comedy writer-directors. Only there is something more complex about Crowe. His passion for Billy Wilder may clue us in; the absurdities of human life laid bare in all their funny, sad mundanity. No other writer-director this side of James L. Brooks can write the kind of funny, sad dialogue Crowe can.

His last two features, Vanilla Sky and elizabethtown, were two of his richest, most misundersttod works. With We Bought a Zoo, his newest film loosely based on a true story, we have a family holiday film in disguise; all of Crowe's littlw moments mark this as a personal work clouded by studio involvement. Firstly, Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna's script is as ungainly as the title. Major structural flaws ground the third act which should soar. But aside from the implausibilities, Crowe's special brand of magic shines through.

A damn good first act sets up a pat plot only shaken off when moments of truth catch us off guard. Matt Damon has rarely been better, he feels so real and raw as a journalist dealing with the aftermath of his wife's death and its affect on his very different kids. His relationship with his teenaged son (Colin Ford) is palpable, his young daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is undeniably adorable. Implausibly relocating to a zoo, they form bonds with the animals and the humans who work there.

What Crowe does right he rarely gets wrong. His use of music is unparalleled. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Isley Brothers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam are all put tp splendid use. His pairing of the visual with the rock aural creates a feeling few other directors could muster. Scorsese is the only other director to my mind who uses pop music as mesmerizingly. Rodrigo Prieto creates a hushed, relaxed visual tone which lets us into the proceedings even more, and Jonsi's music score is just the right mix of playful and resonant.

Even though this can be counted as a lesser Crowe work, there are still so many moments to cherish. The man sets out to craft an authentic American experience, as Damon's character says in the film, and ended up patching together a fleeting feel-good experience.

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