(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 25 March 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/a-family-youd-smile-with)
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Colin Ford
Director: Cameron Crowe
Rating: 4 stars
When a kid begins the narration with a round-up of his father Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon’s) daredevil preoccupations, I groan. However, the narration ends with the prologue. What follows is the incredible story of a family buying a zoo, charmingly told and convincingly played.
Far from being a hero-worshipping son, the narrator Dylan (Colin Ford) turns out to be a rebellious teen, who misses his mother and resents his father. He rolls his eyes, bites out high-flown vocabulary, and draws disturbingly dark sketches. His 7-year-old sister Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) fluctuates between being the little child who believes in the Easter Bunny and the girl who’s trying to replace her mother around the house, packing sandwiches, and cancelling play dates because “there’s a lot to do around here”.
Coming to terms with his own bereavement, Benjamin struggles to deal with his children. He has it easier with Rosie, who giggles when she’s tickled, and reaches out to “catch the spirit” of her dead mother. Maggie Elizabeth Jones outshines everyone else in this film, delivering insightful lines about Dylan’s behaviour as comfortably as she cheers, “We bought a zoo!”
Matt Damon, fine actor that he is, brings out the subtext of the film with a nuanced portrayal of an adrenaline-addict-turned-
clueless-zoo-owner. There’s one lovely moment, where he frowns at the rear-view mirror, after explaining to his daughter that “pernicious” means “causing damage”, as if he’s just realised how pertinent that word is to their lives. In a film that’s somewhat reminiscent of The Descendants and Stepmom, the confrontational scenes between Benjamin and Dylan are especially powerful.
The movie has its pace spot on, and Crowe has chosen, wisely, to trust his actors. Head zookeeper Kelly (arguably Scarlett Johansson’s least glamorous role) only functions as Benjamin’s sounding board once. His exchanges with his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) are light-hearted, and his emotions are brought out by expression, rather than speech. The narrative isn’t so much structured as pieced together, and feels more authentic, more like our lives, comprising episodes that aren’t particularly significant in themselves.
The whimsical lampooning of the nasty zoo inspector and the talkative real estate agent feels quirky, but not out of place. The cliché of soccer moms lusting after Benjamin is balanced out by a bizarre interview with Hugo Chavez. True, there are character archetypes, and rosy touches here and there. But the film doesn’t get saccharine.
The Verdict: An immensely enjoyable film that may have you reaching for tissues a couple of times.