The media campaign for We Bought a Zoo has been met with of a foreseeable volley of mockery (including an exceedingly funny Twitter feed @WEBOUGHTAZ00), but this is hardly the only new movie offering a menagerie as holiday healing for a distressed nation. The multiplexes are a giant session of pet therapy. Four esteemed directors—and one lauded tenderfoot—are debuting films that prescribe animals or the release of animalistic urges as a cure for trauma and depression. Steven Spielberg gives us a horse as a tranquilizer. Cameron Crowe buys the zoo. David Cronenberg shows the benefits of rough sex. French interloper Michel Hazanavicius saves the day with a Jack Russell terrier. David Fincher kills a cat, but he's David Fincher, and what are you going to do?
The net effect of all this wildlife, however, is very tame. None of the pictures is a fiasco, and they are all thankfully unassuming by Oscar-season standards. But there is the overall sensation of filmmakers falling back on their own staid tendencies and other movies that have clicked.
Everybody feels oh so very much in We Bought a Zoo, but that's to be expected from Crowe, whose heart has been perpetually on his sleeve since Say Anything. The movie is explicitly about risking embarrassment: the possibility of ridicule that comes from carrying a capuchin on your shoulder, playing Cat Stevens songs loudly, or...well, buying a zoo. It's not quite the glop of Elizabethtown, but no humane sentiment goes unremarked (or un-reiterated) and, with Matt Damon playing a newly single parent trying to salve his kids' bereavement, it's essentially The Descendants for people who don't get subtlety. I must be one of those people: Large sections of We Bought a Zoo worked me over. (Not the parts with the monkey.) Crowe is didactic, and thinks too highly of Sigur Rós' Jonsi as a composer, but he's also unafraid to work through relationships in dialogue. There's a marvelously unsteady yelling match between father and son midway through, where Damon's kid asks his dad why he's forcing this dream on him, and Damon cries out: "Because it's a great dream! With cool animals!" That naked optimism is disarming. 70
Repressed memories also drive The Artist. It's a silent-film homage to silent films—or, rather, the fond, slightly condescending recollection of silent films. Already the Oscar front-runner, the comedy from Michel Hazanavicius (who directed the two OSS 177 spoofs) is yet another take on A Star is Born, with a slam-bang energetic Jean Dujardin trading places in the spotlight with flapper Berenice Bejo at the cusp of talkies. The period is apt, since most of the movie's charms are technical gimmicks: the interstitial cards, the tight aspect ratio on glamorous black-and-white marquees, and the sneaky intrusion of ambient noises into the soundtrack. Days after seeing The Artist, I find it hard to place any individual moments that resonated (aside from the doggie heroism) and I suspect that, title aside, the movie feels a complacent cynicism toward art. Its pitfall is much like that of its four companions: It can't resist showing off, and in those moments it feels like so much artificial product. Let's get back to nature. 64
SEE IT: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opened Tuesday, Dec. 20. We Bought a Zoo, A Dangerous Method and The Artist open Friday, Dec. 23. War Horse opens Sunday, Dec. 25.