Film Review: “Water For Elephants”

by Jason LeRoy on April 22, 2011

Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Tai as "Rosie" in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Hal Holbrook

written by: Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Sara Gruen (novel)

directed by: Francis Lawrence

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.

Speaking kindly, Water For Elephants is an old-fashioned romantic drama starring a promising young British actor. Speaking critically, it’s a mom movie based on a mom book starring a mom panty-dropper.

The film begins with an unforgivably treacly trope that really needs to be retired: a present-day old man, Jacob (Hal Holbrook), shows up at a circus and begins to regale an employee (Paul Schneider, playing Bill Paxton to Holbrook’s Gloria Stuart) with the grand tale of how he became involved with the legendary Benzini Bros. Circus in 1931, the same year it notoriously ceased to exist due to tragic circumstances which shall be revealed later.

We flash back to Jacob when he was an auspicious young man (Robert Pattinson). The flashback is narrated by Holbrook at first, but the voice changes to Pattinson’s as soon as we see him. This feels like a cheap compromise to give the audience even more of their boyfriend, since the narration is from the perspective of his much older self. But whatever. The son of hard-working Russian immigrants, Jacob is about to graduate from Cornell with a degree in veterinary medicine. Even though the nation is being strangled by the Great Depression, his beautiful new life seems breezily predestined. But when Jacob’s parents are killed in a car accident, he learns that they died in debt to the bank, leaving him with nothing. Traumatized and shattered, he packs up his things and trudges to the nearest train tracks, prepared to catch a train to anywhere.

The first train he jumps turns out to be part of the Benzini Bros. Circus train, which he learns the hard way from the gang of nonplussed carnies that begin manhandling him the minute he climbs into the car. But they soon determine that he isn’t a hobo trying to rob them, and when the circus comes to a new town the next day, Jacob is put to work shoveling shit. Then, while making his rounds, he glimpses the star attraction of the show: Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a beautiful woman in a glittering costume who commands a pack of white and black horses. He notices that one of Marlena’s horses is in pain, and his veterinary training kicks in. Soon he is introduced to Marlena’s husband, August (Christoph Waltz), who rules the circus with an iron fist while acting as its ringmaster. August promotes Jacob to be Benzini’s official vet.

Jacob is cautiously optimistic about his new life in the circus, despite the red flags about August. In addition to the rumors that he throws men off the train in the middle of the night to offset costs, he has an explosively frightening temper which frequently spells bad news for circus employees and underperforming animals alike. One such animal is Rosie, an endearing 53-year-old elephant August acquires to pair with Marlena as his new star attraction. Marlena and Jacob are thrust together to train Rosie, which inevitably leads to flirtation (with each other, not Rosie; although Rosie’s trunk does seem to frequently linger around Pattinson’s groin, for which I cannot blame her). Jacob and Marlena become closer and closer despite the fact that her husband is a certified psychopath, and blah blah blah you know where this is going.

For all its mom-ness, Water For Elephants is solidly made. It is directed with visual panache by Francis Lawrence, a top music video director who graduated to features with similarly stylish films like Constantine and I Am Legend, and exquisitely photographed by the great Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Broken Embraces).

The performances range from adequate to superb. I know everyone is watching to see if Pattinson will have a career outside of Twilight. Personally, I think this is his best performance to date. Not that he’s accomplished that much. Even though I’ve seen most of the Twilight films, I don’t remember him really doing anything in them other than sitting around looking pale and constipated. With Jacob, he gets to sink his teeth (wink!) into a more developed character. He also gets to showcase his charmingly bashful and easy smile, which is refreshing. I’d say he has the chops to survive this long national nightmare we know as The Twilight Saga.

Witherspoon, resembling Jean Harlow, applies her trademark commitment and determination to her portrayal of Marlena, although I couldn’t shake the uneasy knowledge that she once played Pattinson’s mother in Vanity Fair (the scenes, Pattinson’s first film work, were deleted from the final film). But the film is easily stolen by Christoph Waltz, fresh from his indelible Oscar-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds. He is no less terrifying here than in that landmark performance, if in a less deserving film. He walks a treacherous tightrope between dangerous charm and primal menace, while giving us more glimpses into his character’s vulnerability than in Basterds. I fear he may have already been pigeonholed by Hollywood as a villainous sociopath (he once again finds himself climbing on top of a blonde woman to strangle her), so let’s hope he branches out a bit in his next project.

Your appreciation for Water For Elephants will depend on your tolerance for schmaltz. Despite its luminous photography and Waltz’s performance, this is a movie that revels unabashedly in sentimentality. From its score by James Newton Howard to the adapted screenplay by Richard LaGravenese (who’s previously adapted such romantic bestsellers as The Horse Whisperer and The Bridges of Madison County), this is the kind of movie that actually includes the line, “I don’t know if I chose that train, or if that train chose me.” If you can read that without slamming your face into your keyboard, this is the movie for you.

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