Mark Reviews Movies

Water for Elephants

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Jim Norton, Mark Povinelli, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for moments of intense violence and sexual content)

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 4/22/11


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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 21, 2011

A traveling circus, riding the rails of New York state and stopping outside towns with people suffering during the Great Depression and seeking a temporary escape from the turmoil through which they are living, is the backdrop of Water for Elephants. It's a movie that is evocative of that time, where men and women are willing to do anything for just the promise of pay at the end of the week—even if being tossed from a moving train in a most cruel act of downsizing the operation is just as equal and, at times, more likely a possibility.

This is a harsh time for lovers and dreamers alike, so it makes sense that the heroes, a pair of dreamers who, with the speed of a steam engine that's burnt the last of its coal, become lovers, are passive agents in their own story, overshadowed by a cunning, tyrannical boss/husband and the exotic, vagabond lifestyle in which they find themselves. They are even upstaged at the climax of their potential victory over circumstances by an unconvincingly chaotic menagerie of animals and one particularly vengeful elephant.

The story begins in the present, as an old man (Hal Holbrook) has run away from his retirement home to visit a circus that's come to town after-hours. He and the manager (Paul Schneider) get to talking about business.

Back in 1931, Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is about to finish a degree in veterinary sciences at Cornell, and on the day of his final exam, he receives news that both his parents have died in a car accident. His father took out a loan from the bank so Jacob could go to college and was too charitable in his business, leaving Jacob poor and homeless. While walking along the railroad track to find work in the city, he hops aboard a passing train, which just happens to be the home of the Benzini Brothers circus.

A kindly employee named Camel (Jim Norton) lets the kid have a shot—a day of work and a meeting with the head of the show at the end of it to discuss a permanent position. In between shoveling manure and bopping the heads of kids who try to sneak a peek into the strip-show tent, he watches some of the acts, particularly taken by Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and her horses.

The boss is August, a thrifty businessman played by Christoph Waltz with an unnerving sort of calm. This is a man who gives the order to his goons to throw a man from the train while it's still moving, because stopping takes time and wasted time means inefficiency and inefficiency isn't going to sell more tickets. Bringing up the Ringling Brothers act is a surefire ticket to the moving, unforgiving ground, but Jacob plays a decent game. He saw the Ringling show but thought it was horrible, and his favorite act of August's circus is Marlena, who happens to be August's wife. The fact that he's a college-educated veterinarian—and that Ringling, Jacob suggests, is sure to have one on their staff—is just the icing on the cake.

The two clash in overtly obvious ways, none of which have anything yet to do with Marlena. Jacob believes that putting the star horse, which is suffering from a bum leg that will leave it irreparably lame in a matter of days, out of its misery is the right and proper thing to do, and August argues that Jacob's job is to do what he says, which, in this case, is to fix the leg up so it can perform until that happens. When August buys an elephant named Rosie from the remnants of a deserted circus—its occupants waiting for some passing scavenger company to pick them up or be doomed to the uncertainty of the Depression—he takes to spoiling the bullhook upon it so it'll follow his commands. Jacob, naturally, sees this as unmitigated cruelty.

However plain this conflict between August and Jacob comes across in Richard LaGravenese's screenplay (based on Sara Gruen's novel), at least there is sense of tension between them. The same cannot be said of the very, very gradual kindling of the affair between Jacob and Marlena, which seems a romance of convenient availability (She can either be with the abusive controller or the vaguely complimentary stranger who seems like a very nice boy). Director Francis Lawrence treats the central story as a passing phase between the grandeur of the circus and the squalor behind the scenes, and Pattinson and Witherspoon come across as less star-crossed than light-years-removed from each other.

Water for Elephants, despite an attractive look, some intriguing trivia about the cutthroat nature of old-school show business, and Waltz' subtly conniving performance, is undermined by a stoic portrayal of its central romance.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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