Before Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold, Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire embodied everything most of us know about big-time entertainment agents. They can be weaselly in their business dealings, but they must have a raccoon’s ingenuity mixed with the predatory skills of a tiger to fight for their clients’ interests. So what would happen if we put up one of these movie agents against a group of actual animals? I’m not talking a feeding-the-Christians-to-the-lions sort of battle, even though that would be fun too. No, this contest features the new release We Bought A Zoo battling the classic Jerry Maguire in a Movie Smackdown. Both are from writer/director Cameron Crowe, the Rolling Stone magazine wunderkind-turned-film-auteur, who has brought us teen movie staples such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, and Almost Famous.
While a movie about buying a zoo and a movie about a sports agent venturing out on his own may not seem like they have much in common, both feature men whose lives fall apart entirely but who, through huge changes and big adventures, find exactly where they need to be in the end. Both these men have the heart of a lion, and both were conceived and directed by a Crowe.
Based on a true story by memoirist Benjamin Mee, the script for We Bought A Zoo by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) follows the Mee character, here played by Matt Damon, as a single dad looking to give himself and his two children a much-needed fresh start. After a day of house-hunting, Benjamin, along with his daughter, Rosie, finds the perfect house in the middle of nowhere and falls in love with it immediately. Even after they are informed that the property is in fact a broken down zoo, Benjamin commits to doing whatever’s necessary to turn it into an operating animal showcase again. In the process, he must deal with his nay-saying (no, not neigh-saying) brother (Thomas Hayden Church), his moody son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and the animals he has now accepted into his family, all before the inspector from hell (John Michael Higgins) allows the zoo to re-open.
Seeing Benjamin fumble through this challenge while trying to connect with his kids is a joyous experience. His adorable daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and her childish innocence alone is almost enough to let me forgive the use of the title of the movie three times in dialogue. (Yes, I counted.)
Unfortunately, Zoo unnecessarily pulls a Lord of the Rings and fakes us out with its ending. There was a moment where it all felt right, but the film kept rolling, almost to the point where I was taken out of the great feeling the movie had created.
Jerry Maguire is about a sports agent (Tom Cruise), who is praised for an epiphany he has about his job but then fired by his bosses, forcing him to go independent with only one client who decides to stick by him (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
Luckily, Gooding’s Rod Tidwell isn’t Jerry’s only valuable relationship. As he packs up to leave, Dorothy Boyd (Renée Zellweger), a single mom who works in accounts, volunteers to leave with him because she believes in everything he’s said in the mission statement that got him fired from the firm. In Jerry’s journey to try to stay afloat in the sports agency business, he develops more than just a business relationship with Dorothy and finds exactly what he needs in his life.
The legacy of this movie is found in its script. When most people think of Jerry Maguire, it’s no surprise that they say “Show me the money!” or “Help me help you!” Not that I have statistics to back this up, but this was probably one of the most quoted movies of the ’90s. Cruise shines in it, and so do his costars, especially Gooding and Jonathan Lipnicki, who played Dorothy’s son, Ray. Cameron Crowe was already highly regarded by critics and legions of cult fans when this came out, but this movie deservedly brought his career to a new level.
Crowe films are known for having excellent soundtracks, and these two are no exceptions. In Jerry Maguire, Ray’s nanny is a jazz enthusiast who gives Jerry a mix-tape with John Coltrane and Miles Davis on it to set the mood for the rest of the night with Dorothy. In We Bought A Zoo, the presence of a strong soundtrack and score also help to shape the movie. For example, “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens is playing in a scene when Benjamin is acquainting himself with his new surroundings in the zoo and is helping the staff make some repairs. It was a bouncy scene and the music definitely matched.
Nancy Wilson of Heart, who was Mrs. Crowe for 24 years until their recent divorce, scored Jerry Maguire, and Jonsi of Sigur Rós, an Icelandic art-rock group, scored We Bought A Zoo. While both scores did their jobs in terms of setting the mood for the movie, Jonsi’s score stood out more to me. I think WBAZ had the superior tunes.
Crowe also utilized comedy relief to excellent effect in both films. In WBAZ, the real estate agent, played by J.B. Smoove of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, helped take the edge off a scene in which Rosie reveals to that her mom has died. His expression as he segued into a very sincere moment was pretty awesome, turning this bit of dreary exposition into something memorably funny.
In Jerry, a large portion of the comedy came from Rod Tidwell, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. His conversation with Dorothy’s son Ray on the phone while Jerry is drunkenly laughing at them probably stuck in Academy members’ minds when they voted to give him the Best Supporting Actor award that year. Rarely do I take the side of the Motion Picture Academy, but they were right about Gooding, so in terms of comedy, Jerry Maguire comes out on top.
Finally, we have the romance angle in both movies. Romance is important in films like these, but a love interest works best when it’s woven nicely through the plot and then delivers a sweet payoff at the end. In Jerry Maguire, Jerry and Dorothy’s romance was textbook movie-making. The audience would have been deeply upset if those two didn’t end up together, and the way they got together felt natural and satisfying. In We Bought A Zoo, we get a couple of different love interest scenarios, one of which was unnecessary. While I love Scarlett Johansson in pretty much everything she does, I felt as though her romantic storyline was thrown in and rushed in this film. It would have been better to see her love for her job and of the animals—in a strictly non-Tijuana way, of course—without trying to cram a poorly paced romance in as well.
With the exception of Vanilla Sky, I’m a pretty hardcore Cameron Crowe fan, and he did not disappoint with either of these two films. Both are fun journeys to follow because the characters of Ben and Jerry are as likable as ice cream, and we can empathize with each of them. But our winner, Jerry Maguire, had me at hello. And yes, I was waiting the entire Smack to use that line right there.