Published Apr 21, 2011Water for Elephants (based upon the bestselling novel by Sara Gruen) takes place within a travelling circus during the Great Depression. We are introduced to lovable Hal Holbrook, who narrates his life as Jacob Jankowski. The young Jacob, we are told, left veterinary school after the death of his Polish émigré parents, and we follow him as he makes his way through the weird and wonderful world of circus life.
For a story that takes place during a time of much uncertainty in America – poverty was rampant, alcohol was scarce, people lost entire livelihoods – you wouldn't know it because Francis Lawrence's direction makes everything look so damned good. And we haven't even reached the subject of the impossibly attractive three lead characters yet!
Jacob (Robert Pattinson), nicknamed "Cornell" due to his Ivy League education, becomes the veterinarian of August Rosenbluth's (a marvellously unhinged Christoph Waltz) travelling circus, and whose wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, sporting an appropriately dated peroxide coif), is the star act. Jacob is continually thrown into Marlena's company, as he has to train the newest acquisition of the circus, a massive elephant named Rosie. So, obviously, what follows is a very predictable, old-fashioned love triangle.
In one corner, we have an appropriately stubbly Pattinson as "the earnest young man." In the second, we have Witherspoon as his silver haired "dream girl": distant, kind to animals and impossibly beautiful. Rounding out the triangle, we have her husband as "the obstacle." For a role that's supposed to be textbook sociopath, with flashes of blinding anger, paranoid mood swings and cruelty to animals, Waltz is able to make August the most nuanced character in this film. Though it is a tad too close to his Oscar-winning turn (and rightfully so) in Inglorious Basterds, Waltz manages to gain sympathy for his impossibly stressed, yet self-centred, antagonist.
This really is a beautifully crafted film. The score by James Newton Howard is suitably atmospheric and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is nothing short of stunning. Yet, for a movie based on a novel, Water for Elephants isn't particularly literary. Lawrence sprinkles the narrative with the themes of beauty, self-worth, illusion and reality, yet they do little to lend any depth to either Pattinson or Witherspoon's performances.
Pattinson narrates, "Everything is an illusion." I wonder, then, what is beyond the façade? It seems that underneath it all lies the story of a beautiful young man vying for the affections of a beautiful woman from her attractive, captivating, but evil husband in economically different circumstances. Beauty is captivating, sure, but it cannot sustain the attention of an audience for a 120 minutes.
As there is much to admire in this effort, Water for Elephants isn't a bad film. Yet it's far from being good and falls into the unenviable forgotten abyss of mediocrity. Pity. (Fox)