Review: Water for Elephants (2011)



Francis Lawrence
Richard LaGravanese (Novel: Sara Gruen)
122 min.
Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Hal Holbrook, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake,
MPAA Rating

Buy on DVD

Buy on Blu-ray



Source Material

Based on Sara Gruen’s popular novel Water for Elephants arrives on the big screen on the back of an adorable elephant, an impertinent love affair and a whole train-load of cliché.

Entering his final exam to become a doctor of veterinary science, Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is pulled early to identify his parents who were killed in an automobile accident. When it is revealed that his father put their family’s house up as collateral on a loan to put him through college, Jacob gathers up his belongings and sets off to try and figure out what he wants to do with himself now that home only reminds him of heartache. A late-night train provides him a quick opportunity to escape and he finds himself thrust into the hectic world of Depression-era circuses struggling to pay their bills and always one step away from foreclosure.

Leading the circus is hot-tempered August (Christoph Waltz), a egomaniac who lives a better life than those under him, almost to the point of being oblivious to their struggles. On his arm and the central act to the show, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is a much-younger and beautiful performer who stays with August because he’s the only man who ever looked out for her. After nearly getting tossed from the train for putting a pained horse out of his misery, Jacob becomes the veterinarian for the circus while simultaneously falling in love with Marlena.

When an abandoned elephant becomes the show’s last chance for success, a violent outburst against the pachyderm by August and sharpened bull hook puts Marlena in a precarious position. Her love for the animals is tempered with her desire to live in safety and comfort. Jacob may be her only way out, but she fears for not only his safety, but those of the animals, causing her to make a number of poor decision and stay with the increasingly violent ringmaster.

The film is bookended by a semi-emotional, but heavy-handed future encounter between an aged Jacob (likely near or over 100 years old, but not specified in the film, played by longtime actor Hal Holbrook) trying to reconnect with the life he left behind and the modern circus’ new owner Charlie (Paul Schneider) who listens with rapt attention as Jacob tells his own story and not the one of the famed railroad crash that he initially sought information on. It’s handled so obsequiously that the film often mingles with stereotype.

It’s hard not to compare Water for Elephants with The Greatest Show on Earth. Both films revolve around relationships in the circus. Neither has a particularly magnificent set of performances and both end with a major tragedy. There are so few films set in the circus that it’s hard to find another film to which to compare Elephants. The stories to the two films are quite a bit different, but they contain a number of similarities. Both leads are quite wooden for a majority of the film. Charlton Heston probably delivered one of his worst performances in Greatest Show on Earth while Pattinson merely broods through much of the film with a few sparks of life sprinkled throughout. It’s the kind of performance that might lead to stronger roles, but doesn’t feel as mature as he had probably hoped. Each film is a bit of a drag through the middle and neither leading lady seems to have much chemistry with the leading man, not necessarily a fault of their own. Matter of fact, Witherspoon does a fine job keeping the more grandstanding Waltz and the more sedate Pattinson in check. Were she not there, I’m not sure the film would have any elements of luminescence. I’m not saying that Witherspoon’s performance is anything approaching the quality of work she won her Oscar for, but when compared with her two more visible compatriots, it almost seems that way.

And speaking of Waltz, this is the type of performance that makes you begin to wonder just how he managed to walk home with an Oscar. Very similar to his scenery chewing villain in The Green Hornet, Waltz is quickly becoming a typecast baddie with anger management issues who seems perfectly nice and reasonable, but lashes out in vicious and dangerous ways. After Inglourious Basterds, each of his performances seem to merely echo that award-winning role. He will need to make a dramatic shift into other types of roles in order to avoid becoming a mere character actor with no range. Perhaps he should given Alan Rickman a call. Rickman started out dangerously close to becoming typecast as the sneering villain he played in Die Hard, but through a number of alternating roles, his prowess as an actor become more pronounced. Of course, Rickman doesn’t have an Oscar to at his disposal, so there’s no reason Waltz couldn’t find the other kind of work if he so chose.

The person most responsible for the film’s weaknesses is director Francis Lawrence, a music video director who graduated to big screen director with the abysmal Keanu Reeves clunker Constantine six years ago and the popular, yet on marginally respected I Am Legend back in 2007. How this director managed to move from heavy genre feature into costume drama is a bit ridiculous. This type of film isn’t in his wheelhouse and would be akin to someone like Michael Bay attempting to make an Edwardian melodrama. Yet, a lot of the film works in spite of itself, which may have more to do with screenwriter Richard LaGravanese’s script and the source material. LaGravanese often has some great ideas that are twisted a bit too much by filmmakers. Living Out Loud and The Horse Whisperer are prime examples of how solid scripts can be turned into weaker films. It seems like Water for Elephants falls more in line with those films than better visualizations of his scripts like Beloved and The Fisher King, though even that latter film had a few directorial problems.

The film’s excessive abuse of the close-up was not helped by being stuck on the sides of the theater while watching the film. Oftentimes, I felt like I never had a chance to appreciate the surroundings. The gorgeous art direction and costume design more than make up for a lot of the film’s other failures, but when you’re stuck looking at close-ups in nearly every scene, it’s really hard to appreciate all the effort that went into the design of the film.

Water for Elephants is a negligible feature that will certainly appeal to a lot of romantics who aren’t as excited about performance or cinematic style. It’s the kind of movie that pleases the audience without engaging them. It relies entirely on emotional responses from anger and revulsion to satisfaction and sympathy. Typical audience responses can be easily engaged by filmmakers familiar with such techniques without stimulating the more important parts of the brain. It’s what separates the greatest shows on earth from the best shows on earth.
Review Written
April 24, 2011

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