WTF ever happened to Cameron Crowe? The writer/director was a toast of Hollywood with films like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, and yet we’ve not seen a feature film from him in years. Sure, you can point to flops like Elizabethtown and Aloha as knocking him of the A list, but most directors alternate hits and flops; Crowe was a champion of old-school Hollywood nous, making original films with great soundtracks that made an indelible impact on pop culture; phrases like ‘You had me at hello’ and Show me the money’ have taken on a life far beyond their original context. Crowe noted that the film they came from, Jerry Maguire, would not have existed in its current form if it wasn’t for a writers strike; either way, in 2022, a comeback would be welcome.
2010’s We Bought A Zoo saw Crowe contribute a script re-write as a gun for hire; although this wasn’t a passion project, the genial, bitter-sweet flavour could only be him. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a widower who decants his two kids to an abandoned zoo, one which needs a bit of fixing-up. The adventure puts father back in contact with his kids, and his own grief; romance blooms with Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and the zoo is gradually put up to code for a feel-good finale. Even the curmudgeonly inspector (John Michael Higgins) turns out to be a goodie after all.
We Bought a Zoo was a sizable hit; with a touchy-feely director on form, you can’t go wrong with kids, animals and well-delivered sentiment. Damon is some way from his usual wheelhouse as Mee, but captures the determination and self-doubt of a father whose burden is both financial and spiritual; there’s also neat support from Thomas Hayden Church, Elle Fanning and Almost Famous star Patrick Fugit, who bonds nicely with his monkey. It’s a sunny, lightweight, crowd-pleasing film of a kind that doesn’t get made anymore; even the transplanting of an almost-true story from Britain to America runs smoothly.
Crowe’s book about his friendship with Billy Wilder is one of the best modern stories of cinematic development; it’s clear that Wilder is resistant to the idea of passing the torch to Crowe, but he eventually comes to trust and respect the younger man. A painful divorce and a man-out-of-time reputation may have stymied Crowe’s development, but he’s never made a bad movie in my opinion. The old Hollywood for tears and laughter seems some way away in 2022, but Crowe needs a kick-start right now, and even the frothiest of his films remind us of the unique standpoint that Crowe brought to cinema.