Six years off from feature filmmaking, Cameron Crowe returns with a film he did not write, but one he rewrote, based on the real-life story of Benjamin Mee, a Brit newspaper columnist who picked up from his idyllic new digs in the South of France and went off to rescue an English zoo with his family, including a son, a daughter, and a dying wife.
Crowe's movie changes these circumstances around a bit: The wife is six months gone before Benjamin (the quite-American Matt Damon), moody 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford), and bright-'n'-shiny seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, made for the movies) consider the move. And here, they don't relocate from the French paradise to the English countryside but from a Los Angeles suburb to the rolling hills of Southern California, where dad hopes to escape the ghost who haunts them all. And look who's here to help: Scarlett Johansson.
Crowe, who ran Aline Brosh McKenna's first draft through Word before signing on to direct someone else's life, is back to what he's good at: small stories populated by everyday people. Helping Crowe's odds is Damon, who does a superior job of vacillating between wide-eyed (Look! A grizzly bear!) and misty-eyed (I wish my dead wife weren't dead) without turning Benjamin into a complete sap. Damon has never been more lovable—the guy looks like he could use a hug.