You sure you didn’t want to make that fourth Bourne movie?

“What’s a dick?”

This was the question my almost seven-year-old daughter asked me near the end of We Bought a Zoo, prompted by the use of the word by a seven-year-old girl in the film. While I am typically a fan of precocity in almost all its forms, it still had me wondering why director Cameron Crowe felt he needed a laugh line like that. (I am indeed getting old. If I had a lawn, I would be telling you to remove yourself.)

Maybe because there are precious few other laughs in this mostly family-friendly comedy, which I found to be unexpectedly dark.  Yes, they bought a zoo, but hilarity did not ensue. The wife of Matt Damon’s character has died of cancer and left him alone to raise his two kids. Fortunately, Damon is pure “super Dad” material. How many grief-stricken fathers buy animal preserves for their kids? It’s all I can do to plunk down $14.99 for a Littlest Pet Shop house at Target and he’s off buying his kids real animals. Nice way to ruin it for the rest of us.

Another sure sign of the years flying by: That the director who brought us Lloyd Dobler, Citizen Dick, Rod Tidwell, and Stillwater is now reduced to making family comedies featuring monkeys that mimic humans. (This is a good time to bring up the monkey rule.*) After flaming out spectacularly with the ambitious Vanilla Sky (which I am now desperate to revisit, just to find an edge), Crowe seems to have lost his nerve. Zoo goes down like a raspberry smoothie and is about as tough. I almost expected a pillow fight to break out at some point. There’s no problem that a little Jim Croce or Bob Dylan can’t cure.

The film is cloying and it knows it. Luckily for Crowe, he has an actor in Damon who is almost naturally sympathetic–and you can’t help but root for him and his stupid zoo, which unlike other private zoos in the middle of nowhere, comes fully equipped with a Scarlett Johansson. And I am unapologetically skewed in favor of films with plucky young girls, even if they have mouths like sailors.

* Films with monkeys are almost always bad. Actors, don’t make a film with a monkey. Exceptions: Raiders of the Lost Ark, King Kong (maybe). More common: This.

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