REVIEWS: ‘Water for Elephants’
YATES: Film questions what we are willing to accept as entertainment, while ignoring what goes on behind the scenes
“Water for Elephants” is a classic romance and coming of age story set in the depression era with the world of the traveling circus as a backdrop. The film is based on the 2006 novel of the same title by author Sara Gruen. Film adaptations are nothing new to director Francis Lawrence, who did the same in 2007 with Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend.” This is a completely different genre, however, and I was curious to see if Lawrence could pull it off.
Jacob (Robert Pattinson, “The Twilight Saga”) is a semester away from finishing school and becoming a veterinarian when receiving the news that his parents have died in a wreck. Leaving his old life behind, he takes to the road and becomes a vet for the Benzini Brothers traveling circus. It is on the cross-country journey that he falls in love with Marlena (Reece Witherspoon, “Walk the Line), the star attraction and wife of hard-nosed circus owner August (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”). Jacob and Marlena bond over Rosie, the newly acquired elephant who will join Marlena as part of the star attraction, and soon find themselves facing a choice – abandon the Benzini Brothers circus and face the unknown together, or continue living under the thumb of August.
The movie teems with verisimilitude. Throughout the film, Jacob has opportunities to do the heroic thing, but cannot summon the courage to pull it off. It is refreshing to have a protagonist appear as an everyday man, especially in a plot that attempts to encapsulate a magnificent journey. Sure, Jacob always seems to be in the right place at the right time, but he doesn’t always do the right thing. As far as Jacob’s traveling counterparts, the film effectively drives home the desperation the men feel in giving up their lives to find work with a touring circus during the depression era. Though only minor characters, you find yourself rooting for them as much as the protagonist.
Much of the film takes place in the cramped quarters of the traveling circus train, where special effects are traded in for gritty mise-en-scene. The overall production design of the circus world is beautiful, accompanied by sweeping cinematography that pulls you right into the big top as if you were a circus mark being thrust by the crowd towards one of the carnival attractions. Pattinson was an excellent choice as Jacob as the role required much brooding, and Waltz shines as a complicated antagonist character with ample depth.
The film’s early character development is a bit questionable. Lawrence seems very rushed to get Jacob on the Benzini Brothers train, offering a convoluted opening scene to show us how close Jacob is to his parents. When we first view Marlena and August together as a couple, she actually seems rather smitten with her husband, who is presented to us as a callous, heartless business man. I don’t expect obvious foreshadowing, but in sticking with the film’s verisimilitude it would have been nice to see Marlena struggling with the relationship she is trapped in rather than enjoying it. There are also some rather awkward ongoing dinner scenes with just August, Marlena and Jacob that seem unnecessary and beg the question – how surprised should August be of their affair after continually forcing onto his wife the company of a handsome young man who shares her love of animals? Perhaps the folly of the shrewd businessman is that he cannot see past his own wallet.
While the film doesn’t serve as a circus biopic, it does peel back the tent canopy somewhat on the working conditions of the three-ring spectacle. It is a cerebral film that features heavy themes such as abuse, imprisonment and interdependence and casts somewhat of a spotlight back on the audience. Much like the circus atmosphere surrounding reality television and celebrity and athlete worship of today, the film makes you question what we are willing to accept as entertainment while ignoring what goes on behind the scenes.
“Water for Elephants” is a film about friendship, love and perseverance, and captures the despair of our society during a time of great unrest with the depression and prohibition. The tagline of the film is “Life is the most spectacular show on earth.” It does certainly get you thinking about your own journey — both the one you’ve taken and the one that lies ahead. Much like “The Notebook,” the film reminds you that we’re living the journey every day, and before we know it, the journey comes to and end, so we should enjoy it while it lasts.
Sara Gruen’s “Water For Elephants” is a novel that was fated to be a film from its first printing. It’s a period piece that gets to work in the historic-yet-glum atmosphere of the Great Depression, while its setting in the midst of a traveling circus maintains the needed glamour perfect for a pageturner — or a movie.
(Fittingly enough, my screening was prefaced with a trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett‘s Southern-fried-fable “The Help,” perhaps the second-most obvious page-to-screen transition of late.)
Placing the action in a circus basically requires the film to be gorgeous, if only on the surface. And in the end, that shallow level of enjoyment is all that director Francis Lawrence is able to give a story that deserves far better.
Tragedy befalls aspiring vet Jacob (Robert “I’m Not Edward Cullen” Pattinson), and sends him crashing into the railway path of the Benzini Bros. Traveling Circus. He learns the ropes slowly from the traditional array of clowns, burlesque dancers, and sideshow barkers. But the true stars of the show are the quintessential top-hat-and-tails ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) and his wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who controls show horses, does acrobatics and looks great in a sparkled leotard, to boot.
Jacob eventually finds himself among the group’s upper echelons once his skill with animals is revealed – a path that leads him directly between the husband and wife at the heart of Benzini Bros. There are a number of static shots attempting (and failing) to showcase the unspoken passion boiling between Marlena and Jacob, an underwritten subplot about Jacob’s ailing friend, and an elephant. Not nearly enough of the last, I’m sad to report.
Despite the flack that Pattinson has gotten (and will continue to receive until something happens to overshadow the behemoth of “Twilight” in his career), his performance in the film is quite serviceable, though it’s hard to imagine him growing into the salty older version of himself later played by Hal Holbrook. Reese Witherspoon, on the other hand, turns in a remarkably stilted and dull performance. Her character is intended to be even more of a firecracker when not on the back of a show horse; instead, the fake smile she puts on under the lights of the big top is about as meaningful as any of the other expressions she gives.
As is so often the case, the truly interesting bits of story in “Water For Elephants” are hovering on the outside of the thoroughly boring romantic core. Christoph Waltz won an Academy Award for the combination of flamboyance and evil he brought to “Inglourious Basterds,” and that same level of intensity is felt in his ringmaster persona here. That August suffers from sort of psychological issue is hinted at, but not delved into the way it should.
The close of “Water For Elephants,” book form, is a look into all the research Gruen painstakingly went through to craft a world capturing both the glitz of the traveling show and the reality of the work behind the spectacle. Those stories are fascinating and would be amazing to explore onscreen. It’s a shame that “Water For Elephants” ends up diluting its true intrigue with such snoozeworthy performances.
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