In theaters this week

Film Capsules 

In theaters this week

We Bought a Zoo (PG)

Cameron Crowe's soft spot is also his weakest spot. Think of the more soppy moments in Jerry Maguire, or even Almost Famous. We Bought a Zoo is full of soft spots. In fact, it's one big soft spot. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a big-city writer and recent widower with two kids and a huge hole in his life. To get his life back on track, he packs up the family, moves to the middle of nowhere, and — wait for it — buys a broken-down zoo. In addition to the menagerie of lions, zebras, and monkeys roaming the grounds, Benjamin acquires a kinda-girlfriend in Scarlett Johansson as Kelly Foster, the comely but too-busy-for-a-social-life zookeeper in charge of the ragtag but devoted staff. Too cute, and swinging way too hard for family audiences, We Bought a Zoo is Crowe's most sentimental and conventional movie. (It's partially based on a true story.) At least Jerry Maguire had some bite. Benjamin's zoo adventure is all about reconnecting with his children and finally finding closure on his wife's death. The cast is game — especially Damon, who gives heft to what is essentially a slumming role. But the sweetness of it all will smother you. — Michael Gallucci

The Descendants (R) — Matt King (George Clooney) is away on business when he gets word that his wife is in a coma after a boat accident. Suddenly he's responsible for not only raising two troubled daughters, but also telling family and friends that he's taking his wife off life support. Plus, he finds out that she'd been cheating on him. Director Alexander Payne (Sideways) laces The Descendants with equal doses of humor and drama, and Clooney gives one of his most affective performances. It's Clooney and Payne's most emotionally taxing work, and it's Clooney who keeps the movie on course. (Gallucci)

Hugo (PG) — Asa Butterfield plays Hugo Cabret, a wide-eyed boy whose clockmaker father dies unexpectedly, leaving the kid to be raised by his drunken Uncle Claude, who keeps the clocks running at a Paris train station. Rather than be gathered up as just another orphan and given over to authorities by the villainous Station Inspector, Hugo lives in the station's walls, stealing croissants and milk to get by. One day he meets a luminous, educated young woman, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who introduces him to the colorful characters at the station that he's spent so long avoiding. The maze of connections between Isabelle, the station, and the other characters they encounter leads Hugo on a magical journey that's surprising and touching at every turn. (Justin Strout)

J. Edgar (R) — Clint Eastwood's stirring biopic looks at long-running FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (played with spot-on self-satisfaction by Leonardo DiCaprio), a deeply conflicted egomaniac whose personal agendas often broke the laws he had sworn to uphold. The movie crisscrosses eras and historical highlights from Hoover's life, but it isn't flashy — that's not Eastwood's style. It is supremely well-made, directed with insight and reverence and skepticism for Hoover and his story. (Gallucci)

Melancholia (R) — The first thing Lars von Trier does in Melancholia is destroy the world. As is typical of Trier's mature work, it's masterful, visually sumptuous, surprising, and provocative. But as has been typical of Trier's work all along, the movie boasts its share of distracting idiosyncrasies. There are moments that are as transfixing as anything else you'll see onscreen this year, though ultimately those parts slightly outweigh the whole. When the movie opens, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are late for their wedding reception. By night's end, not only is the marriage scuttled, but Justine, who suffers from depression, notices that a particular star in the sky isn't there anymore. That's because it's been eclipsed by Melancholia, a rogue planet zooming toward Earth. Once the story starts to embrace its underlying sci-fi basis, Trier surprises and delights over and over again. Melancholia is worth seeing for a revelatory turn from Dunst that relentlessly undercuts any sense of unreality. (Lee Gardner)

My Week With Marilyn (R) — Michelle Williams is luminous as Marilyn Monroe in writer Colin Clark's remembrance of the time he talked his way onto the set of The Prince and the Showgirl and ended up assisting Laurence Olivier on set and aiding Monroe everywhere. Williams' Marilyn is an untouchable goddess who keeps Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) under her thumb, Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) at her mercy, and every man who lays eyes on her at full attention. But because the movie is based on the memoirs of a glorified personal assistant, it's scant on inside-baseball verisimilitude, opting instead for boxed-in broad comedy. The only plot to speak of concerns Monroe's inability to perform the most basic functions of an actress and Olivier's inability to tell her what to do. (Strout)

Young Adult (R) — Even though Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is on a mission to win back her high-school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who's now married with a newborn, it's hard not to love her. She considers herself lucky to have escaped the rural mediocrity of her hometown and made a decent living in the "big city" (Minneapolis), ghost-writing YA fiction. But after she gets an e-mail blast from Buddy's brood with a photo of their adorable new baby, something just snaps. So Mavis packs up her Mini Coop and heads home to reclaim her glory. In her stupor, she meets Matt (Patton Oswalt), a decent guy who feels compelled to stay by her side and talk her out of her plan. What unfolds is a remarkably honest film built around Theron's endlessly complicated performance. But Young Adult is as much a triumph for director Ivan Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, who last collaborated on Juno. This is a movie shot through with observational clarity, lived-in performances, and touching nuances. (Strout)

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