Water For Elephants

May, 2011, Drama

Directed by:Francis Lawrence


Water For Elephants


Novelist Sara Gruen’s bestseller has been converted into a lavishly-detailed exploration of  Depression-era circus life, thanks to a fine script by Richard La Gravenese who excells in bringing popular novels to the screen (Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer). His efforts are wonderfully enhanced here by the meticious attention to period detail provided by Vienese-born director Frances Lawrence (I Am Legend) who elicits a stellar performance from Oscar-Winter Christopher Watts, (the despicable Nazi of Inglorious Bastards). Furthermore, the film provides an intriguiging examination of carnival life and even provides a thoughtful commentary about the price of dictatorial leadership, all encased in legendary cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s lush camerawork.

So what’s the bottom line? An interesting failure,  thanks to one crucial mistake - - the casting of its leads.

 On paper, teaming auidence-favorite Reese Witherspoon (I Walk The Line, Sweet Home Alabama, Legally Blonde I & II) with Robert Pattinson, (Hollywood’s current heartthrob inThe Twilight series)  must have seemed a match made in box-office heaven. Witherspoon’s wholesome vitality and Pattinson’s brooding remoteness undoubtedly convinced the film’s financial backers they had a financial bonanza on their hands. Yet after just two weeks in release, Elephants is fading at the ticket booth, a victim of movies with far less imagination and talent. Blame can be laid directly at the feet of its leading man and lady.

 Pattinson plays Jacob, an aspiring vetenarian who quits his studies at Cornell University in the depths of The Depression following the death of his parents in an auto accident. Left homeless by his father’s debts and dispirited by the sudden distruction of his professional future, Jacob hops a slow-moving freight train which turns out to house “The Famous Branzinni Brothers Circus” operated by the tyrannical August and presided over by his popular wife Marlena. She’s the star attraction of this  down-at-the-heels competitor to Ringling Brothers, performing tricks with a quartet of overworked and poorly maintained horses while wearing skimpy outfits designed to dislay her pert figure to distract auidences from  her modest talents as an acrobatic equistrian. 

 Initially taken on as a roustabout to feed the circus animals and clean their stables, Jacob correctly diaignoses a fatal malady in Marlena’s favorite horse and then incurs August’s wrath when the young man disobeys the owner’s brutal decision to work the horse to death.  But the acquisition of an aging elephant replaces Marlena’s equine act and fills the stands with growing auidences,  forcing  August to value Jacob’s  growing contributions despite the growing relationship between the young interloper and the alluring Marlena.  But jealousy begins to distort August’s judgment and inflame his terrifying temper…

 The role of Marlena requires an actress capable of portraying a sultry women who’s wise in the ways of the world without being completely corrupted by them. An orphan rescued from a life of destitution and the exploitation which accompanies it,  Marlena views August with a mixture of gratitude, wariness and condescention. Such a woman  has to convey a knowing mixture of sensuality and connivance, making the best of the patchwork life her husband offers. Unfortunately, Ms. Witherspoon, so appealing in light comedies (Sweet Home Alabama, Legally Blonde I & II) and dramatic roles portraying admirable heroines, (I Walk The Line, Rendition) fails here to project the carnality her character requires. Faithful to her husband in the absence of any other suitable males in the hermetically-sealed world of the traveling circus, the actress can’t disgard her innate wholesomeness and become a women who projects the sort of latent wantoness that would cause a young man to risk everything for ann invitation to her bed.

 Pattinson’s Jacob must be a combustible mix of angst and alienation, a James Dean-sian figure whose appeal comes from the proper fusion of youthful passion and the tradgic loss of his professional dreams. I haven’t seen any of Pattinson’s earlier work, but professional critics have pilloried his range as a thespian, suggesting that his role as a vampire who can turn on the libidos of young women may be the only type of part he’s capable of playing with any degree of skill. He looks and acts like a zombie here, in jarring contrast to the emotions his character should personify. As a result, Jacob never grows or develops as the storyline progresses,; wearing facial expressions which appear constrained by massive doses of novacaine, Pattinson’s Jacob never credibly develops the growing obsession with (and devotion to) Marlene that explain and justify his character’s actions in the final reel. As a result, the leads fail to generate the “chemistry” required by the  plot, dragging the film down in the progress.

 Their failure to ignite the screenplan is most apparent whenever Waltz’s August is on the screen; cocky, delusional about the legitimacy of his despotic treatment of man and beast alike, Watts conjures up a man of considerable sensitivity and a monumental zest for life lived well outside the rules of conventional behavoir. Arrogant about his position as the brains and breadwinner for his collection of human misfits, August’s mercurial personality can bewitch one minute, reward the next - -  and punish immediately thereafter. The role requires the type of manic energy which can fascinate and horrify at one and the same time.  Watts is more than equal to the task, delivering a dazzingly nuanced portrait of a man determined to run off the rails whenever his authority is challanged or disregarded.

 Any pair of romantic leads would have to be gifted to withstand the competition Watts provides - sadly, Witherspoon and Pattinson’s performances grow more anemic as the storyline grinds to a conclusion that gutted of real meaning by the smarmy postscript which brings the movie to a close in with a soap-opera whimper.

 All that said, if you're intrigued with the nomadic qualities of circus life and can tolerate a gifted actor forced to work with those far less gifted, you’ll enjoy this handsomely-mounted examination of a way of life many of us over the age of social security eligibility remember with wistful nostalgia.


The Verdict? Despite its warts, this one’s offers some very interesting moments.


Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus