Nobody knows if Cameron Crowe‘s We Bought A Zoo, which begins filming this month, will work or not. But it it does it’ll be an emotionally satisfying finale to a real-life, hard-knocks Hollywood drama about a gifted filmmaker who’s riding high and then runs into a career ditch and has to struggle for years to make it back to the top, and loses his marriage along the way. Call it Cameron Crowe.
(l. to r.) We Bought A Zoo costars Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, director-cowriter Cameron Crowe
It has a better story than Jerry Maguire in some ways — darker, more textured — and much better one than Elizabethtown‘s.
Will We Bought A Zoo (I almost called it Zoo Story) turn things around? I haven’t read the original Aline Brosh Mckenna script or Crowe’s rewrite, but I’m kind of scratching my head at this point. An adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s book sounds, no offense, like a moderately appealing Disney film in which Dean Jones and Hayley Mills might have co-starred in the early ’60s.
Crowe’s Zoo will have a bit more gravitas, I’m presuming. Or at least some angularity. For one thing star Matt Damon (who plays Mee) recently told MTV.com’s Josh Horowitz that it’ll have “a lot of Eddie Vedder and a lot of Neil Young” on the soundtrack. So you have that and then you add a dilapidated zoo, ornery animals, a couple of kids (one of them played by Elle Fanning), zoo staffers, cancer, a girlfriend and a grandma and…well, you tell me. Damon, Fanning, Scarlett Johansson (playing the girlfriend and not the dying wife, right?), Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, etc.
At the end of the road Zoo might just be just a cool family film or something genuinely touching or (pray this won’t happen) another Elizabethtown. The apparent plan is to open toward the end of the year with a full award-season treatment from 20th Century Fox.
But even if it only half works Zoo will be seen as some kind of directing comeback and a career re-boot for Crowe, who’s been through some stop-and-go times over the last few years. I for one will be happy to see him out of the thicket and back in the saddle.
It’s probably too melodramatic to use a famous John Milton quote — “Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light” — to describe Crowe’s career path since ’05. But the former Rolling Stone journalist was clearly basking in auteurist glory after the successes of Jerry Maguire (’96) and Almost Famous (’00).
And then came the sense of shock and total calamity when Crowe crashed into the side of a Kentucky mountain with Elizabethtown (’05), a debacle which also seriously damaged Orlando Bloom‘s career. A combination cutesy romance and career-disaster drama, Elizabethtown wound up earning about $52 million worldwide, and pulled down a Rotten Tomatoes score of 27 hoi-polloi and 19 creme de la creme.
I only know that pre-Elizabethtown Crowe was Mr. Hot Shit…okay, make that Mr. Moderately Hot Shit in the wake of Crowe’s creepily downish Vanilla Sky (’01)…and post-Elizabethtown the word around town was, “Good God, a guy as mature and insightful and gifted as Cameron Crowe wrote and directed this?…what happened?”
That’s what folks on my end were saying, at least.
If you’re any kind of man failure isn’t that big a deal. Fall off a horse, you get right back on…simple. So Crowe didn’t move to the Rocky Mountains and live with the wolves like John Colter. He survived and kept plugging, devoting himself to this and that project and screenplay over the next five-plus years. But for this and that reason nothing quite came together.
And then a new movie — a kind of Jerry Maguire-meets-an-early-version-of- Greenberg-meets-Joe vs. the Volcano-in-Hawaii type deal — almost happened two years ago and then suddenly fizzled out in pre-production, prompting thoughts of Elizabethtown 2.
It was eventually called Deep Tiki, with Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspooon set to costar. It came very close to shooting but then ran over a creative grenade or two and stalled and was more or less abandoned in either December ’08 or January ’09.
It may have been that Crowe said to himself (or one or more of the creative principals said to Crowe), “Wait, wait, wait…hold up. What are we doing here? Spy satellites, an erupting volcano, a sacrifice to Hawaiian Gods?”
I’m trying to think of the last time that a major-league auteur had secured financing and cast two movie stars and had done all the spade work and lined up most of the ducks and then…wait, huddle, stall. Definitely weird.
There’s also Crowe’s Marvin Gaye biopic that Variety‘s Steve Chagollan wrote about on 4.1.10. “Crowe has been working very quietly for three and a half years to align the key elements on a pic about Motown singer Marvin Gaye,” he reported. “Despite securing extensive music rights and the full cooperation of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., the project, with Scott Rudin attached as producer, is being reconceived until Crowe and Sony can come to terms on a budget and a star (Will Smith, who has an ongoing relationship with Sony, declined the part after much discussion).”
A couple of days ago I wrote Crowe about some information that came my way about his having written a screenplay based on David Sheff‘s “Beautiful Boy” and Nic Sheff‘s “Tweak,” which both tell the same story about Nic’s methedrine addiction.
The source told me that David “didn’t like the way he was portrayed, so now the production company — Brad Pitt‘s Plan B Entertainment — has moved on to another screenwriter.” A friend who did some checking says the project is legit but isn’t sure about my source’s account. In the thick of We Bought A Zoo or whatever Crowe didn’t respond.
And then last September came the news that Crowe’s musician wife Nancy Wilson, citing irreconcilable differences, had filed for divorce, and that the couple had been separated since the summer of ’08. I don’t get into personal stuff, but one naturally suspects that the whole pressure-of-things-not-panning-out-all-that-well may have been a factor.
In any case, Crowe is clearly due for a little light shining down, a clearing in the woods. As a guy who once heard the roar of the crowd and held mountains in the palm of his hand, he needs to stand on a plateau and feel the kind of serenity and satisfaction that can only come from making a film that people admire and pay to see in great numbers.
Speaking as an ex-Crowe homie who personally likes and admires the guy, I’m pulling for him and We Bought A Zoo and the whole third-act payoff that will (or could or should) make Cameron Crowe a winner.