'We Bought a Zoo': Cameron Crowe Continues Quest to Recreate His Life

The Cameron Crowe conspiracy theory: It's always been about him.

cameron crowe matt damon we bought a zoo together hampton 615 fox.jpg

20th Century Fox

Some film directors are more autobiographical than others. Oliver Stone's first movie, Platoon, was about his experiences in Vietnam. Stone then went on, though, to make movies about Wall Street, a pro football team, a pair of serial killers, and three American presidents, among others.

Woody Allen, on the other hand, has made more than a dozen films in which the main character is a nerdy-but-endearing neurotic who works in show business—either portrayed by Allen himself or, more recently, by a leading man as his stand-in. Take this year's fluffy, charming Midnight in Paris, for example, where Owen Wilson's performance often lapsed into little more than an impression of his director's famous nebbish persona.

Cameron Crowe, though, has Allen beaten. Crowe must be the most autobiographical director in the history of film. In addition to a pack of music videos and two rock documentaries, Crowe has made seven feature films: are Say Anything..., Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, and his newest, We Bought a Zoo, which opens today.

Every single one is contemporary and set in the United States. Every single one is about a handsome, witty, sensitive, straight, white, WASPy male who must confront one of life's major transitions. Every single one has a love story—dependent on a subplot about the male protagonist's relationship with a father, son, brother, or a psychological surrogate.

Every. Single. One.

But Crowe has not only made seven movies about the same meta-protagonist. Remarkably, and perhaps without precedent, he has made those films in chronological order. Really. He has. If you sat down and watched all of Crowe's movies in the order that they were made, you would see his eternally recurring, affable male meta-character grow from gawky teenage boy, to post-collegiate 20-something, all the way to fatherhood and middle-age, hitting every major life-cycle crisis along the way. It's just... bizarre. And, like how Pink Floyd's “Dark Side of the Moon” can seem to sync up with The Wizard of Oz, looking long enough at the orderly progression of Crowe's work is enough to convince you that he's doing in on purpose.

Scan any list of cinema's most famous directors. There's never been an auteur with a body of work remotely like it.

Then again, precious few directors, including Crowe's beloved mentor Billy Wilder, have had the lifelong creative freedom that Crowe won himself at an early age.

Born in 1957, the southern California native was a teen writing prodigy, a Doogie Howser for rock critics, contributing to Rolling Stone magazine at the astonishingly tender age of 16. At 22, Crowe spent a year posing as a high school student in suburban San Diego, writing a book that became the 1982 film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Crow's characters are flawed in unspectacular ways, entirely plausible as actual human beings

Fast Times marked the appearance of Crowe's still-inchoate meta-character, in the form of a sweet, shy, high schooler Mark 'The Rat' Ratner. By the time of Crowe's directorial debut with 1989's Say Anything..., Ratner had graduated and become Lloyd Dobler. Via the career-making performance of John Cusak's, Dobler delivers a generation-defining monologue while having dinner with his girlfriend's father, and a jambox serenade so iconic that Modern Family could hysterically spoof it on an episode last season, more than two decades after the film came out.

After Lloyd Dobler, who lives in Seattle and struggles with his love life and career goals after high school, Crowe's next protagonist was Steve Dunne. Played by Campbell Scott in 1992's Singles, Dunne lives in Seattle and struggles with his love-life and career goals after college.

By 1996, the career struggles were over, for character and director alike. Crowe had gone from teen prodigy to successful adult. A director with enough Hollywood juice to land Tom Cruise for his next leading man, Crowe was still in his 30s, but nearing the top of his game. With Cruise, he made Jerry Maguire, about a very successful man still in his 30s and nearing the top of his profession.

In 2000, Crowe released Almost Famous, which seems like an anomaly, or at least an exception proving the rule. But hold on. While the film's main character may be a teenage boy, Almost Famous isn't a teen movie. The events are framed as nostalgia, as though the audience is looking back fondly on Crowe's formative years. Because we are, basically. The most explicitly autobiographical of his films, based on his experiences covering rock bands for Rolling Stone, Almost Famous is exactly the sort of idealized reminiscing men do at a 20-year high school reunion, their 40th birthday, or whenever the first hints of middle-age start creeping in.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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