We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 6 Sep 6:25PM
A wrongly evicted young woman and a former Iranian colonel engage in a desperate battle over a small Californian bungalow. Drama starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley from debut writer-director Vadim Perelman
If 'feel-good' movies lift the spirits, what exactly is the appeal of 'feel-bad' movies? Catharsis? Relief that our lives aren't as terrible as the misery onscreen? Just as special effects extravaganzas constantly up the ante on ever more elaborate spectacle, downbeat films compete to plumb successively lower depths ("I see your Mystic River, and lower you a 21 Grams"). In more ways than it intends, House Of Sand And Fog hits rock bottom.
Stung for not paying a business tax that she doesn't owe, reclusive, unemployed Kathy Niccolo (Connelly) is promptly forced out of her home. The property is immediately snapped up at a bargain price by one Colonel Behrani (Kingsley), an ex-soldier of the Shah reduced to working menial jobs - and hiding them from his family and community - to keep himself, his wife and son afloat. Kathy's own sloppy behaviour, such as disregarding various pre-eviction warning letters, and Behrani's stubborn refusal post-auction to resell the property, means that each is technically in the right, creating a dangerous impasse. And when Kathy involves a lovestruck local policeman, Lester Burdon (Eldard), who puts not-strictly-legal pressure on the Colonel, matters deteriorate further.
There's nothing wrong in funnelling operatic tragedy through seemingly mundane domestic battles, but the way events escalate here feels deeply fraudulent. Officer Burdon has to be one of the least convincing characters in recent cinema (not helped by the colourless Eldard's portrayal), encouraging the alcoholic Kathy to drink and then turning psycho-vigilante in a heartbeat. Kathy, too, is allowed to sink into self-pity to further force the story into its ludicrous finale. Connelly is a fine actress but her predilection for material that requires her to repeatedly drip like a leaky faucet is starting to detract from her abundant talent (she was even a puddle throughout Hulk for pity's sake). And how much sympathy can we spare for a woman evicted because she couldn't be bothered to open her mail?
Kingsley and the touching Agdashloo as Behrani's meek wife fare better, but even their best efforts are hamstrung by writer-director Perelman wildly overplaying his hand. Attempts to crank tears out of his audience veer the film into unwitting parody. And heavy-handed allegory and symbolism wait at every turn. As soon as one character's grazed knees are shown, it's clear that person won't be alive by the end credits. Drifting clouds, lone birds wheeling in flight and endless shots of backlit swirling California mist may trigger musings on the complex mysteries of life, or simply make one imagine Tony Scott was shooting a commercial for dry ice.
Though relentlessly downbeat, this is so overwrought, underdeveloped and ham-fisted that it's more unintentionally comic than genuinely tragic. A house of cards whose biggest lesson seems to be: ignore window envelopes at your peril.
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