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.
Spielberg actually has directed a twin bill (
), but the ostensibly more mature entertainment,
, has the exact same plot as a children's film: 1945's
. In both pictures, a British Isles pet—substitute plow horse for collie—is dropped behind German enemy lines, and has encounters with innocents who promptly die. The echoes may be accidental, and are partly the responsibility of
's book and Broadway lineage, but Spielberg has very consciously made a 1940s family picture. The Irish greenscapes are as gossamer and fake as the sets of
. It is typical of Spielberg to make a World War I picture where the central players emerge unharmed, like E.T. and Elliott on the Western Front. Even without the stage version's famed puppets,
has moments of wordless power—a cavalry changing into a Gatling gun, the mounts galloping on, riderless—but it is skill devoted to grating nonsense.
, a movie all too proud of its refurbished shock value. Fincher's take on Stieg Larsson's froth of woman-killing and woman's revenge is less repellent than the flat nose-rubbing of the Swedish version, maybe because Fincher mostly gets his jollies from digital showboating. The movie looks like somebody found the pornography stash of Steve Jobs; the snow and the torture chamber both look like they were designed by Apple. The enterprise has a necrotic vibe that is distancing, and in some shots, the characters' skin is nearly purple. Fincher's best jokes are all sick ones: A killer carves his victims to Enya, the opening credits are a Bond montage caked in a spew of power cords and crude oil, and he gets us awfully attached to that cat. The only human element is Rooney Mara. As the hacker detective Lisbeth Salander, she benefits from lucky miscasting: Her big, emotive eyes belie the heroine's traumatized unfeeling.
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
So...tell me about your father. The new Cronenberg film about the salad days of psychoanalysis,
isn't a horror movie until you consider what
shown. There are terrible memories of childhood beatings, recounted by Keira Knightley as Carl Jung's patient-turned-protegée Sabina Spielrein, as the specter of European genocide looms over the talking cures. The movie's first 30 minutes take place in nearly unbroken sunshine, in the setting of Swiss lake holidays, punctuated by screaming. (Some of Knightley's fits push the film toward a Gothic melodrama that is embarrassing in its own way; the picture is better when it's more repressed.) What makes
the most engrossing of the season's releases is how the characters are grappling with bestial parts of themselves through ornate words—and often justifying savage betrayals or king-of-the-jungle pride the same way. "All those provocative discussions helped crystallize a lot of my thinking," Michael Fassbender's Jung tells Viggo Mortensen's Freud. And while the movie includes lots of sex and spanking, it's chiefly about the thrills, arousals and perils of conversation.
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.