Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: The Descendants vs. We Bought a Zoo, in which two beloved American directors return to the big screen with new adaptations, enlisting A-list actors to play daddies trying to do right by their kids in exotic locales.
Premise In the The Descendants, George Clooney faces heap after heap of drama when tragedy befalls his wife. (From the absence of the word “dead” in the trailer, we think she’s in a coma.) A bad father pre-accident, Clooney soon discovers the difficulties of single parenthood. Then he learns—from his daughter, no less—that his wife has been cheating on him, all while having to decide whether or not to sell the family’s centuries-old land holdings, which were passed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries. We Bought A Zoo, meanwhile, has its own heavy load. After losing his wife, single Matt Damon struggles to raise his young kids, eventually deciding what they need is a fresh start. So, he quits his job and relocates to a farm with a zoo and a sexy Scarlett Johansson! This must be the “American experience” he mentions over coffee to Thomas Haden Church. We’re going with The Descendants here: though it’s hard for us to believe any wife would cheat on someone who looks as much like George Clooney as George Clooney does, the parallel universe lays out the groundwork for some intriguing drama. And though we’d more easily believe Matt Damon would buy a zoo and fix it up, We Bought A Zoo seems too eerily similar to Jerry Maguire with the cute blonde, wise sidekick and that sitar-strumming background music. Advantage: The Descendants Directors If ever there were an impossible match-up, it’s this one. Both films mark the return of some serious directorial heavyweights. The Descendants‘ Alexander Payne has had just a shortlist of directing work since the 2004 indie smash Sideways, including HBO’s Hung pilot and two shorts, one for Paris Je T’Aime (that last hilarious but moving short that featured bit with this year’s Emmy winner for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama, Margo Martindale). With The Descendants, he certainly returns to his roots—quirky dramas in crystal-clear-sky settings. Then there’s We Bought A Zoo’s beloved director Cameron Crowe, who has not helmed a major studio feature since Elizabethtown, and we all know how well that went (not well at all). He, too, returns to old themes, like Jerry Maguire‘s reinvention and the teenage love he’s depicted time and time again in Fast Times at Ridgemont HIgh (which he wrote), Say Anything, and Almost Famous. Needless to say, we refuse to choose between the two. Advantage: Tie Daddies George Clooney and Matt Damon, the two male leads, are hot, generation-defining Oscar winners. So, we can’t base our decision on pure acting ability. Instead, the choice was made based on the toughness of their daddy challenges. Stress seems to have not made a dent in either’s looks. Floppy hair is doing wonders for both men in this film; Clooney has 10 years on Damon, though, which tilts the boat in his favor. However, judging by the amount of living things Damon must ably care for, he comes out a winner in this category. He sacrifices his job and home in the name of his children, while in the movie Clooney just starts learning how to. Advantage: We Bought A Zoo Cast Of course, considering the leads and directors, both films are loaded with supporting acting talent. We Bought A Zoo boasts Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, the hilarious J.B. Smoove (Larry David’s New York City sidekick on Curb) and a Payne favorite, Sideways’ Thomas Haden Church. The Descendants offers Beau Bridges, Jackie Brown’s Robert Forster, SLC Punk‘s Matthew Lillard, the greatest quirk female sidekick of the last ten years, Judy Greer (27 Dresses, The Wedding PLanner, Love Happens) and the dark horse of this debate, The Secret Life of the American Teenager‘s Shailene Woodley. She cinches the point for The Descendants, because it seems the pregnant girl from that TV show Molly Ringwald can’t save does the unexpected—she holds her own against Clooney. Win: The Descendants Source Material We Bought A Zoo and The Descendants are both book adaptations. The Descendants is based on a novel of the same name by Hawaiian writer Kaui Hart Hemmings, while We Bought A Zoo is the real life memoir of single British dad Benjamin Mee. In 2006, Mee, his mother, and his brother bought a zoo in the English countryside, moved in with the kids, and proceeded to raise it from the brink of failure. We have to give credit to Hemmings’ The Descendants for garnering favorable reviews from The New Yorker and The New York Times, but the fact stands that Mee actually lost a jaguar, battled rats, helped run a 200-animal zoo, and survived. Advantage: We Bought A Zoo
Location The exotic location of both films made for quite a difficult choice. The Descendants is based in the tropical ideal of Hawaii, while We Bought A Zoo is based in an unnamed countryside zoo. Both places provide beautiful expanses of exciting imagery, but The Descendants‘ real estate won us over. True, a zoo is no common place for a family estate, but the risk of giving up a historical Hawaiian real estate gem (that view! those hardwood floors!) almost broke our cynical city-dwelling hearts. Advantage: The Descendants
Verdict The attraction of Payne’s and Crowe’s pseudo-comebacks is inarguable, but there is a sappy quality to both Descendants and We Bought A Zoo that puts us off a bit. For a man so on top of his game, it’s a pleasure seeing Clooney stumble into, and probably out of, some serious failures. In the end, earthy Scarlett Johnasson and do-gooder Matt Damon can’t save We Bought A Zoo from looking like a Jerry Maguire doppelganger. Realistically, the blow of Crowe’s loss here will no doubt be softened by the Pearl Jam documentary he released just last week. Winner: The Descendants