Saturday, May 7, 2011


Written by Richard LaGravernese

Directed by Francis Lawrence

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA  April 25, 2011  7:50PM

"Water For Elephants" is a perfectly bright and glossy romance set under the big top but while it's spectacle distracts you for a while, you soon see that it offers very little emotion beneath it's shiny surface.

As a local circus is trying to close for the evening, an elderly man is found wandering around. Jacob (Hal Holbrook) has escaped from the nursing home he has been living.

Charlie (Paul Schneider), the manager is about to call the home to come pick him up when Jacob sees a picture from the Benzini Brothers Circus and tells him he was there during the 1931 tragedy. Intrigued, Charlie asks him about it and Jacob goes back to when he was a young man, now played by Robert Pattinson, and attending college to become a veterinarian like his father. His parents are Polish immigrants who have done well financially despite being in the middle of the Depression.

Jacob is about to take his final exams when he receives tragic news that his parents have been killed in a car accident. To make matters even worse,  Jacob discovers that his father was deep in debt and had mortgaged the family home so he would be able to go to college. Now, homeless, unable to finish school and with no other family, Jacob has no where to go. One evening, he jumps on a moving train to parts unknown, in search a new life.

However, Jacob is immediately caught and about to be thrown off the train when Camel (Jim Norton), a kind older man who likes his drink, steps in. The train belongs to The Benzini Circus, heading to the next stop. Camel senses something about Jacob, as well as being a fellow Pole, and wants to help him get a job. He arranges for Jacob to meet the boss, August (Christoph Waltz), a charming huckster with a violent streak. August is not impressed and about to have him thrown off the train when Jacob tells him that he is a vet. Lucky for him, that's exactly what August needs right now for a injured horse in one of the acts.

Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the alluring wife of the ringmaster, is the star attraction of the circus whose act involves performing with the horses. Jacob determines that one of the horses needs to be taken down, which is against August's wishes, but after deciding to do so anyway, it nearly costs him his own life.

Despite their turbulent introduction, August learns to trust Jacob and becomes friendly with  him, even to the point of inviting him to have dinner with him and his wife. Although Marlena appears to be content with her life with August, it's clear it's a marriage of convenience, at least on her part. There is an attraction between Jacob and Marlena, but both struggle to resist as they are very much aware of the dangerous consequences if her husband should ever become even slightly suspicious.

While raiding a bankrupt circus for acts, August finds his potential new attraction; a female elephant named Rosie. Marlena is reluctant to work with it but her controlling spouse doesn't give her much choice in the matter. Jacob is responsible for caring and helping to train the elephant but Rosie is not being cooperative. This infuriates August and he lashes out violently against the elephant but Jacob manages to find a way to communicate with Rosie and she becomes the star of the circus.

Life under the big top appears to be going well for everyone involved until August begins to suspect that something might be going on between Jacob and his wife.  Although the two have grown close but haven't done anything more than kiss briefly but they know that it won't make any difference to August as he will react violently, which he does. After he is beaten savagely by August's men, Jacob wants Marlena to run off with him to start a new life together but will she be able to find the strength to leave her abusive husband and if she does, will they truly be able to escape from his clutches?

"Water For Elephants", based on the best selling novel by Sara Gruen, plays like a good old-fashioned Hollywood love story. Director, Lawrence has assembled a great team, in front of (for the most part) and behind the camera to help make this movie look beautiful with special mention should be made to cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto who should be highly commended for his gorgeous visuals along with production designer, Jack Fisk who has an amazing eye for all of the period details and a fine script by the always reliable Mr. LaGravenese, despite the occasional clunky dialogue.

It 's clear that the director wanted this film to feel like it could have been made in the 1930's while incorporating a few subtle modern-day film flourishes to keep the kids interested but despite all of this talent and hard work involved, "Water" never manages to rise above being simply just a poor imitation. The film is certainly watchable but it lacks any spark of passion or magic to make it a truly memorable experience.

Ms Witherspoon delivers another fine performance in the complex role as Marlena, a woman torn between security and true love although playing a sexy bombshell doesn't come naturally to her. I think she is underrated as an actress and even I have been guilty of underestimating her talent. Mr. Waltz wonderfully plays a slightly more humane version of the Col. Landa character that won him an Oscar for "Inglourious Basterds" and Mr. Holbrook is terrific in the small but pivotal role as the older Jacob. 

As for Mr. Pattinson, he had a perfect opportunity, in a nice, juicy role, that could have shown people that he was more than simply just a pretty face and had some range as an actor but I'm afraid that pretty is all that he can comfortably manage. He is a complete blank slate, lacking even a small amount of charm and it was actually painful at times watching him struggle to show any kind of emotion. He is never for one moment believable as a romantic partner of Ms Witherspoon as they seem much more like mother and son, which is definitely not sexy.

"Water For Elephants" had many of the right elements in place but ultimately fails to deliver satisfactorily in the end.