“Call me Bella one more time and I’ll snap your neck like a twig. Comprende?”
Take a tired cinematic love triangle, add depression era circus folk and handsome-as-a-Greek-statue-but-shallow-as-a-Roman-fountain Robert Pattinson and I have to admit there isn’t much about Water for Elephants to suggest it might be my cup of tea. On the other hand, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County) has had more than one screenplay turned into a good movie, likable Reese Witherspoon (who hasn’t exactly been prolific since her Oscar win for 2005’s Walk the Line) is usually engaging, and I was curious to see if Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) was more than just another Best Supporting Actor one-hit wonder. So it is that I decided to have a look with a minimum of expectations. Imagine my surprise then that Water for Elephants turned out to be pretty good.
Going in, I wondered how the movie was going to draw a modern audience into its Depression era circus milieu. I worried they were going to go with one of those clichéd present-day bookend numbers where the old man recounts his story blah blah blah… and that’s exactly how Elephants started. My low expectations quickly turned to active skepticism, but luckily the filmmakers were smart enough to cast Hal Holbrook as Jacob Janowski. Like the pro he is, Holbrook quickly sets a soulful tone as an old man with a story to tell, the drama of which is worn into every wrinkle on his face.
The story then flashes back as Holbrook’s voice gives way to Robert Pattinson as young Jacob, a Cornell veterinary school student whose studies are cut short when his Polish immigrant parents are killed in an auto accident. It’s a year or two into the Great Depression and Jacob is told his father mortgaged the comfortable family home in order to pay for Jacob’s education.
With nothing left either familially or financially, Jacob hits the road where, by luck or by fate, he hooks a ride on a passing train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Circus. There he meets and quickly falls for Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the cold but pretty star attraction of the circus who also happens to be the wife of the temperamental and dictatorial circus boss, August (Christoph Waltz). With no other prospects and at least one beautiful blonde reason to stick around, Jacob convinces August to hire him on as the circus’ veterinarian and the story is quickly locked onto a path toward conflict and drama.
Early on, most of the story’s heavy emotional lifting is handled by Witherspoon and to an even greater extent Waltz. Between the two, Witherspoon is the more subtle. She starts out a bit enigmatic, you’re not sure whether she’s good or bad, but she ultimately reveals an interesting mixture of innocence and hardness. Always appealing, here there’s a knowing, world-weary edge to her performance that the actress might not have been able to manage convincingly even just a few years ago.
For his part, Waltz is suitably and unpredictably menacing. Moment to moment you never know when he’s going to smile or fly into a rage, but he emanates a constant and intensifying sense of doom as the story progresses. He’s the story’s wild card and he sets the temperature. He reigns in some of the delicious scenery chewing he unleashed in Inglourious Basterds, but he maintains the tension of not knowing when he’s going to snap.
Pattinson meanwhile doesn’t have to do much in the first half of the film except be handsome and brooding and likable, a feat to which he seems to come naturally. He does his best James Dean impression and his wounded smolder works up to a point, but he lacks the gravity for a believable and compelling romance with Witherspoon. The result is that their inevitable pairing lacks chemistry and, as a result, sex appeal. While there is plenty going on in the first half of the film between Waltz and Witherspoon and within the drama of the fortunes of the circus itself, Pattinson’s blankness finally sells the movie a little bit short when the film’s climax is gutted somewhat by the empty romance that leads up to it.
Surprisingly, where Water for Elephants succeeds marvelously – and what makes it recommended even though the love story isn’t quite everything it should’ve been – is the expert evocation of the romance of the period and of the circus itself. Remarkably, circus life is never candy coated. There’s the adventure and freedom of the road, the camaraderie of equals in a united endeavor and the pure joy of the entertainment of a more innocent time, but there is also the dark, unpleasant underbelly of neglected animals and exploited workers. There is the big top with its thrilling stunts and animals and clowns, but at night there is the coochie tent with its strippers and pipe-wielding goons patrolling the perimeter to make sure no one peeks inside without paying. It’s a contradictory mix of seedy and wholesome (one that also infused cinema in its day) and it’s a rich arena that Water for Elephants makes the most of.
Not surprisingly, the plotline that works most effectively is the one concerning the ups, downs and inner workings of the Benzini Brothers circus itself. The heart of this angle of the story is the elephant August takes on in the hope of reviving the circus’s fortunes. The elephant, Rosy, seems unresponsive to training and August’s solution is predictably brutal while Jacob (also predictably) favors a more gentle approach. Whichever man wins out, the success or failure of the circus rides on the 57-year-old elephant’s weathered back. In the end, the key to bringing Rosy to life is clever and satisfying and one of the film’s nicer touches.
It’s too bad the story’s central romance and the triangle of conflict it provides ultimately let the film down because the rest of it is so well executed. Had the love story hit its mark, Elephants could’ve been both wonderful and wonderfully old fashioned. As it is, the other parts of the story click and, combined with Rodrigo Prieto’s beautiful cinematography, James Newton Howard’s lush but never overwhelming score and Jack Fisk’s terrific period production design, the film finally works despite being imperfect. Holbrook is given the film’s final line and, even though it’s corny and you can see it coming, he hammers it home exactly as tear-jerkingly intended. While Water for Elephants never achieves the deep emotional resonance it’s aiming for, it at least leads you out of the theater with that nice little kick.
Water for Elephants. USA 2011. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese from the novel by Sara Gruen. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Music score composed by James Newton Howard. Edited by Alan Edward Bell. Production design by Jack Fisk. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Hal Holbrook, Jim Norton and Mark Povinelli. 2 hours 1 minute. MPAA rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. 3.5 stars (out of 5)
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