WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
By Gary Murray
Starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz
Written by Richard LaGravenese
Based on the novel by Sara Gruen
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Running time 2 hrs 1 min
MPAA Rating PG 13
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Films about the circus have been around since the earliest days of the silent screen. With exotic animals and death defying acts, one didn’t need a soundtrack to get the excitement across the screen. Arguably, the biggest circus film is The Greatest Show on Earth by Cecil B. Demille, which won many major awards in 1952. The latest to tackle the big top is Water for Elephants.
The story starts much like Titanic. An old man Jacob(Hal Holbrook) is outside of a circus that is getting ready to pack up. The young man Charlie (Paul Schneider) who finds the elder gentleman thinks that he is a patient from the local old folk’s home and tries to get him back. On the wall, Jacob notices pictures from the Belini Circus. The younger man is fascinated by the fact that the old man knew of that old circus and the tragedy that befell it.
As the old man tells his tale, we go back to 1931. Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is a young man with a plan for the future. He is a vet student at Cornell getting ready to take his final exam in vet nary medicine. As the test starts, he receives the first tragedy of his young life. His parents are killed in a car wreck. He then finds out that they put everything they own in hock to get Jacob into school. So within a few minutes, the young man is a homeless orphan.
So like many men in the Great Depression, he takes to the rails. His first hitch-up is on a circus train. He is soon befriended by one of the workers on the train who tries to get Jacob a menial job for the circus. Soon Jacob falls in love with the life of greasepaint and three rings.
Jacob meets August (Christoph Waltz) the owner and ring master for the circus. He treats every person in the circus like a cross between a family and a dictatorship. His short fuse can cause expulsion from the family and off the train, while it is moving. The idea is that he is a man not to be challenged.
The other person he meets is the star attraction Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a trick rider with a shadow past. Jacob is instantly attracted to Marlena. She is August’s wife. The love triangle becomes somewhat more complicated with the addition of Rosie, an elephant who is brought on to be the new star attraction. The bonding between the elephant and the humans parallels the bonding between our star crossed lovers. Anyone who has seen a classic film knows how all these plot points will turn out. There are few surprises in Water for Elephants.
The element that saves this film is the same element that has saved so many films in the last few years–Christoph Waltz. As the ring master of the circus, he is brutal, vain and demanding while being a fragile egg of a man. His explosions of temper juxtapose with frail crying jags. He demands total loyalty while showing none. It is a fascinating study of dysfunction done with such grace that is seldom seen on the screen. It is another amazing role from the man.
Both Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson are passable as our love interest but it is hard to believe they are impassioned lovers. Neither brings the heat needed for the roles, it is more like two buddies play-acting being lovers rather than the real thing.
There are so many individual elements that were just exact. The costumes were just as one would expect them to be, from the Depression Era worn out work clothes to the low rent circus wraps. The overall feel of sets and props gave an impression of a difficult world, where the struggles of the circus mirror the struggles of the people fighting hunger.
Water for Elephants is a mixed bag of a film. Parts of the film are stunning and riveting while others reek with hokum. Director Francis Lawrence does keep the pace going where one doesn’t notice the two hour length. It is more a slight entertainment than a milestone of cinema.