– Summary –
Director : Francis Lawrence
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Richard Brake, James Frain.
Approx Running Time : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: A failed veterinarian student drops out of college during the great Depression after his parents are killed, and joins up with a traveling circus. He falls for the boss’s gorgeous wife, is setup upon by the heavies when he stands up to the boss, and trains a new “star attraction” for the circus in the form of an elephant.
What we think : A train ride of cliches and romance swirl about this often melodramatic story of a man and his elephant, and the woman he falls for, leaving the majority of film fans either aghast that they stayed til the end, or caught up in the post-Twilight Robert Pattinson taking his non-acting into a film starring entirely no vampires. Well crafted, gorgeous to look at, Water For Elephants feels a little like it’s trying to be more epic and sweeping than the train-bound narrative allows, and while the characters feel all sweet-as-pie All American, the end result is a somewhat limp, somewhat sour effort where the beauty and harmony are unbalanced by an overt mean streak throughout. Worth a look, I guess, but it’s not a keeper.
If there’s one thing I hate more than romantic comedies starring Jennifer Lopez/Jennifer Anniston/Kate Hudson/Diane Keaton, it’s overly manipulative “animal movies”, where the star animal in the film is inevitably the one which is killed/maimed/mistreated/funnier than the humans. Films where you can feel the director reaching into your chest or tear ducts to try giving the bits inside you that work the awwww and tug them gently, prodding an unsustainable emotional bond with you that, while occurring feels real and genuine, but after the credits roll feels a little like you’ve been manhandled. Water For Elephants, to a large degree, feels like manhandling to me. Based on the book by Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants is story set in the Great Depression, trying desperately to evoke the Great Depression, while managing to also feel the need to rise above the Great Depression in its emotional core. It’s a mismatch of a film, a film trying to find its center, yet not quite being able to deliver the genuine heart it so desperately aches for. It’s almost good, if that’s quantification enough for you.
While studying for his Veterinary Degree at Cornell University, Jacob Jankowski (played as an old man by Hal Holbrook, and in his youthful version by Robert Pattinson) learns that his parents have been killed in a vehicle accident. With the bank foreclosing on his parents debts, Jacob finds himself homeless and jobless – and in the Great Depression, this wasn’t a good combination. While walking the train tracks one night, he jumps aboard a passing train, only to find it’s a circus train traveling to the next town for a show. Initially scoring a job shoveling manure and tending the animals, Jacob becomes involved with the Circus’s boss, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), who sees his veterinary skills as a way to keep the animals in the show, and him in business. August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is also part of the show, riding several show horses bareback – until one of the horses needs to be put down due to injury. Without his star attraction, August purchases an elephant named Rosie, and gets Jacob to train her up for the show. While this is taking place, Jacob and Marlena begin to form a bond as they bond with the new elephant – and their personal feelings for each other will bring them into direct confrontation with the violent, vicious August, as he tries to keep his circus from going under.
While my opening paragraph may have given you the indication that I didn’t enjoy this film, let me qualify that by saying that I did enjoy it, I just know when I’m being manipulated. And this film is definitely going to manipulate you. Hidden beneath a slick veneer of beautiful cinematography, some wonderful (and not so wonderful) performances by a top-notch cast, and the sheer impressiveness of an elephant strolling about the screen, Water For Elephants has a fairly generic, altogether cliched set of problems. Francis Lawrence, the man who gave us the recent I Am Legend and Constantine, and who has directed a swag of music videos including Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River, seems more like a director searching for a style than a director with one. It’s hard to compare films as diverse as Constantine and I Am Legend with this, a more straightforward, charming dramatic piece without monsters, creatures or devil men. Although, I guess there’s something to be said for not wanting to pigeonhole yourself as a director of certain types of films – I was just bemused that following I Am Legend’s gigantic crowd-pleasing antics, that Lawrence chose this story to make. Lawrence has taken Sara Gruen’s novel of an old man returning to his youth by recounting his story of joining a circus, and made a pretty, yet somewhat trite, film of it.
The story itself isn’t new, although the way the production team decided to show it seems to be a throwback to the glossy, stylized films of old where soft lighting, effective framing and a concentration on character was more important than flashy editing and visual effects. The film looks amazing, with the lighting and production design crews to be commended for their work on this picture. The cast all look the part, the tones and hues within the film are both evocative of the period (predominantly Depression era USA) and in keeping with each scene’s structures and nuances, ensuring that even if the narrative doesn’t grab you, your eyes won’t go begging for something pretty to look at. James Newton-Howard has delivered a workmanlike score for the film, although you won’t be humming any tunes after watching it – it’s serviceable at best, in keeping with the era of the movie, and yet weirdly unmemorable.
The cast, with the exception of Robert Pattinson, are uniformly excellent. Reese Witherspoon leads this one with all those white teeth and cornbread toughness we’ve seen her do in countless other films, as Marlena, the tortured soul whose dreams are tucked away while she lives out her husbands – and what a cad of a man August Rosenbluth is. Rosenbluth is played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), who once more delivers the nasty-but-nice character who seems okay, but is really a monster. His treatment of those around him, from his henchmen, the performers, the animals and even his wife, is appalling, and Waltz delivers a top notch performance of a man best described as a bastard. The backup cast, including Hal Holbrook as an older Jacob, are all excellent, doing the script justice (and perhaps more than it deserved), while the productions most bankable star, Robert Pattinson, threatens to bring it all undone. Look, I don’t know if it’s residual resentment at having two more Twilight films to endure (as I write this, Breaking Dawn Part 1 is a month or so away from release) or just the fact that he seems like he’s constantly about to poo his pants with diarrhea, but Pattinson’s non-acting is one of the biggest killers to your potential enjoyment of this movie. Flames await me, no doubt, for writing this, but Pattinson can’t act.
Not one jot. He moves through this film with the cat-like grace of a busted crab. His facial expression moves woodenly from “forlorn” to “lost” to “soulfully forlorn” and finishes off that pouty, misty-eyed, angst-lite with “terribly troubled”. I don’t think his eyebrows are actually attached to the musculature of his face, he gives so little away. His scenes with Reese Witherspoon, supposedly his “one true love” feel like a half-cooked school play, for all the romance and heat in them. Pattinson does a good job with the accent and a smile every so often, but when he needs to really act, really perform, he’s just so underwhelming I felt like reaching into the screen and punching his snotty Edward nose. Christoph Waltz is a character Jacob tries to befriend, or is befriended by – I’m still not sure which or why – and Waltz easily outclasses the younger actor in both intensity and clarity of character. An aside – I found it unsettling watching Pattinson, for many known as Edward from Twilight, playing a character called “Jacob” when he’s spent the majority of his career acting opposite a character called Jacob. At times, I couldn’t stop giggling to myself. Such a shame. Anyway, of the three main leads, Pattinson is the weakest by a long way, and it almost brings the film undone.
I felt the story battled to gain any real emotional traction, at least amongst the human characters. Sure, Rosenbluth’s an ass, and Marlena is too proud to accept that she needs to leave him, and Jacob’s too dam straight up for his own good, but hang it all, there’s an elephant to consider. The elephant is central to the story of the human characters, although why we should be concerned with these archetypes of Depression Era America is beyond me. Rosenbluth is ruthless, murderous and out for his own, Marlena outwardly sees Rosenbluth as her “best worst offer” and stays with him, while the ideological Jacob represents the audience’s viewpoint as the moral, ethical center of the film. The elephant, Rose, whose worth as a show animal is contingent upon being able to perform when commanded, seems to be the analogous theme of the movie overall – worth itself. At what point do we sacrifice our self worth to improve our lot, or to remain unharmed? All three characters have a lot to lose, and a lot to gain, by Rosie’s success or failure. The cruel Rosenbluth sees Rosie as money – to be made and lost. Marlena sees Rosie as something of herself, I think, in that she’s a prisoner of fate, destined to be controlled (owned) by her husband (master). Jacob sees Rosie (and Marlena) as a victim, and perhaps as somebody to be “saved” from her horrible marriage and life by someone with more pure motives.
I lay the films weakness at the script. The characters don’t translate off the page as well as they needed to – especially Jacob, who feels less like a character we should care about and more like somebody who needs to pull his head in and get on with life. Marlena’s motivations are never truly clear, always ephemeral and hidden behind Witherspoon’s admittedly awesome smile. The lack of chemistry between Witherspoon and Pattinson is insurmountable for Lawrence to overcome, and try as he might, the pair never seem to be a real “match”, in the Hollywood sense. Bored as I am by Twilight, at least there Pattinson and his co-star Kristen Stewart had chemistry. The story does tend to wander about a bit, trying to involve a veritable circus tent full of second-tier characters who are either stock cliches or generic cutouts of “circus folk”, and while I’m sure the reality of the period is portrayed accurately, the script seems ambivalent to the fact that these people are struggling from day to day while making people smile and laugh – the depression of the Depression isn’t totally captured, and I think more attention to this aspect may have drawn a more emotional response to the story from this little black duck. As with so many book-to-screen translations, a lot of stuff is removed from the story to make it filmable, although often in the doing of this, a lot of depth to the characters is also removed. The script, by Richard LaGravenese (whose credits include scriptwork on The Fisher King, The Mirror Has Two Faces, PS I Love You, and the last Narnia film, The Voyage Of the Dawn Treader) is of a credible quality, although he doesn’t quite get the balance between romance, drama, and period-era reminsicence right: too often I think he was hoping for a Forrest Gump-styled trip through the era, without the gratuitous inserting of famous real people, and in this case, it doesn’t quite gel. It’s not a complete failure, it’s just not a home run.
Water For Elephants is far from a terrible film, in fact, it’s better than a lot of the rubbish perpetrated on unsuspecting audiences these days, and by a wide margin. I’ve picked it apart, I know, but in the overall scheme of things, there’s far worse films you could waste time watching for less emotional connection. As I said, the film looks amazing, while Witherspoon and Waltz deliver eminently watchable performances throughout. There’s a slight malaise across Pattinson’s portrayal of the destitute Jacob, and your tolerance for this is going to be the deal maker or breaker with the movie as a whole. Water For Elephants is worth a look, and while I don’t envisage ever sitting down to watch it again (at least, not until it’s on free-to-air TV or something) I can recommend it for the simple, elegant story it seeks to tell.
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