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

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

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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.

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.

The midlife crisis starts in earnest, though, with Vanilla Sky. In Crowe's best film, Tom Cruise returns as David Aames. Older, stouter, richer, Cruise plays a mega-successful magazine publisher. Like Crowe, who went totally A-list after winning Oscar nominations for Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, Aames is in the penthouse and seems to be living the life of his dreams.

That charmed existence, though, can't keep Aames from having to face his own mortality, or from being scarred by life. Although his father has ostensibly died before the story begins, much of the plot centers on Aames' very middle-aged-man pursuit of trying to connect with an aging father figure, played exquisitely in the film by Kurt Russell.

In Elizabethtown, the dream is over, and the midlife crises hits full force. Now the father is really gone. Orlando Bloom as Drew Baylor gets fired, dumped by Jessica Biel, finds out his father has died, and is looking for a reason to keep living. Kirsten Dunst gives him one.

Finally, we come to We Bought a Zoo. In the film, made as Crowe's marriage to Ann Wilson was dissolving, the protagonist played by Matt Damon has lost his wife. He must face the challenges of raising kids alone—including his very own surly but creative teenage boy.

Ah, the great circle of life.

Forget any opinions you might have about the films themselves. Certainly Crowe's work has always been too sweet for some tastes. In Singles, for instance, Crowe's grunge-era Seattle bops to the cheery beat of Paul Westerberg's “Dyslexic Heart,” glossing over the heroin-fueled despair and punk rage that dominated the music.

We Bought a Zoo , based on the true story of a British journalist who rescued a forlorn animal park, is an inherently sweet story. In Crowe's hands, watching it becomes like swimming in maple syrup. This is his first kid-friendly movie—save for a few curse words—and the Alterna-dad Does Disney approach is heavy-handed. Tears should be lightly jerked. Sweetness should swell gently, like a cello quartet. But Crowe hits every note hard, on every beat, and it's like hearing Jerry Lee Lewis play Moonlight Sonata.

Whatever. The movie is for kids. If you have them, take them. Just bring insulin.

The really interesting question is what Crowe's next movie will be about. In guises from Cusak to Damon, audiences have seen his meta-protagonist go from high school to post-college, to a young man trying to succeed at his career without losing his soul. We've seen him find love and lose it, grow to middle age, idealize the past, face his mortality, lose his father, and finally have kids of his own.

Anyone could argue that Crowe's palette is too limited. There's no question that he has taken the old salt about “writing what you know” to an extreme.

But why is that bad again?

We live in a culture that worships innovation, a faith reflected in our arts as an adoration of the experimental. Not only in film, but also on TV, and in books and music, our highest praise is always reserved for the unusual, provocative, or fantastic.

In truth, though, the hardest task for a filmmaker, or any artist, isn't to conjure the bizarre, but to faithfully render the familiar. The truly difficult work is to meaningfully evoke the everyday. After all, any child can create a fantasy world, where anything goes. Only a mature artist in full command of their craft can create a world on film that audiences will accept as a reality. Whatever the faults of Crowe's films, his characters are almost invariably rendered as idiosyncratic, flawed in unspectacular ways, and otherwise entirely plausible as actual human beings.

Besides, by only making movies about his own experiences, and by making them in chronological order, Crowe certainly seems to be doing something no one else has ever done, consciously or not. Chances are he'll keep at it. That's why, whatever his next film ends up being called, a solid bet is that the story will be something along the lines of Grumpy Old Singles.