We Bought a Zoo doesn't seem to know what kind of animal it is.
Is it a family melodrama, a love story, a wacky comedy, a drama about coping with grief, a feel-good film about following your dreams, or, as ads seem to indicate, a gift-wrapped animal adventure?
Not surprisingly, this menagerie of genres doesn't mesh.
Matt Damon rises above the contrived material as Benjamin, the widowed father of two who decides his family needs a fresh start and uses all his savings to buy and fix a house with a ramshackle zoo. Thomas Haden Church has some of the funnier lines as Duncan, Benjamin's accountant brother, who's quick to dispense reality checks.
Maggie Elizabeth Jones, the 7-year-old redhead who plays Benjamin's daughter, Rosie, is the rare child actress who avoids cloying precocity and manages to be believably cute, funny and wise.
Other performances don't rise above the hodgepodge of clashing themes. Scarlett Johansson, drabbed down as Kelly, a zookeeper who strikes sparks with Benjamin, seems miscast.
The film is based on a true story of a British family man who bought a dilapidated zoo, and the supporting characters have the kind of eccentric charm better suited to a British farce than a mainstream American movie.
Music is one of the film's strong suits, which is not surprising given that the director is Cameron Crowe, a former music journalist who chronicled his experiences in his 2000 film Almost Famous. But the story doesn't measure up to Crowe's best character-driven work in Jerry Maguire or his wonderful directorial debut, Say Anything.
The most formulaic plot point involves a self-important inspector (John Michael Higgins) in charge of deciding whether the zoo will open to the public. Higgins, so funny in other roles (especially Christopher Guest movies), is saddled with a thankless, caricatured part here.
There's a budding adolescent romance, in which Benjamin's brooding 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), professes his ardor dramatically to 13-year-old Lily (Elle Fanning). Dylan's grand gesture feels like the polar opposite of the believably romantic scene in which John Cusack held up his boombox outside Ione Skye's room in Say Anything and blasted Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes.
Speaking of seminal moments, Crowe's Jerry Maguire famously unleashed two lasting catchphrases: "You had me at hello" and "Show me the money."
Here, the phrase "We bought a zoo!" is uttered three times. It doesn't get any catchier with repetition, or make this lackluster movie any more memorable.