Water for Elephants
Director : Francis Lawrence
Screenplay : Richard LaGravenese (based on the novel by Sara Gruen)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Reese Witherspoon (Marlena), Robert Pattinson (Jacob Jankowski), Christoph Waltz (August Rosenbluth), Paul Schneider (Charlie), Jim Norton (Camel), Hal Holbrook (Old Jacob), Mark Povinelli (Kinko / Walter), Richard Brake (Grady), Stephen Monroe Taylor (Wade), Ken Foree (Earl), Scott MacDonald (Blackie), James Frain (Rosie’s Caretaker), Sam Anderson (Mr. Hyde), John Aylward (Mr. Erwin), Brad Greenquist (Mr. Robinson), Tim Guinee (Diamond Joe)
An increasingly rare specimen of old-fashioned Hollywood studio-produced entertainment, the type that leaves no room for irony or cynicism or thematic depth and instead resolves itself to warm hues of sentimentality, romance, and comfortably wrought eccentricity, Water for Elephants should appease as many casual moviegoers as its incites the wrath of cinephiles who instinctively turn up their noses at anything based on a recent bestseller that also stars one of the hunks from the Twilight movies. And, make no mistake, there is plenty to criticize here in this lavishly mounted adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2008 novel: it is surface-slick, giving us gorgeous cinematography that encourages us to revel in aesthetic beauty when we should be reflecting on the horrors of the depression; it features an utterly predictable love triangle whose intimations of potential doom have little resonance; and it fills every potential gap with a sweeping wall of music that instructs our every feeling. Yet, in some sense, isn’t this part of what we go to the movies for?
The story takes place during the early years of the Depression. We are introduced to the protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, as an elderly man (wonderfully play by veteran Hal Holbrook) in a present-tense framing story in which Jacob tells of his experiences with the Benzini Brothers travelling circus, which we know from the outset will somehow end in disaster. Jacob, played as a young man by Robert Pattinson, is a veterinary student at Cornell one exam short of graduation when his parents are killed in an auto accident and he is thrust into a world of poverty and homelessness. He hops a train and finds himself part of the Benzini Brothers circus, first as a laborer shoveling manure, but later as a the circus’s official vet, which necessarily involves him with the circus’s emotionally unstable impresario August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz) and his wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a beautiful rose plucked by August from poverty and obscurity and turned into a star attraction.
Because August is frequently cruel and violent and Jacob and Marlena are young and beautiful, it is only a matter of time before a love triangle develops that will threaten life and limb. While there is a certain amount of romanticization involved in the film’s depiction of the circus, embodied most beautifully in a galvanizing early sequence in which the workers raise the big tent against a glorious, bronze sunrise, Water for Elephants also evokes the dark side of itinerant entertainment during economic hard times. Images of wild animals confined to tiny cages, constant threats of going bankrupt and being picked clean by other circuses, and the hard physical realities of life on a cramped train with what can only be described as a wildly disparate company of workers, performers, and hired thugs remind us that the old ideal of “running away with the circus” is little more than a pipe dream. August runs Benzini Brothers with an iron fist, although he is most frightening because he is also charming and seemingly giving, emphasizing the familial nature of the circus enterprise even as men are thrown off the moving train late at night (known as being “red-lighted”) either as punishment for indiscretions or simply because they are no longer needed.
The uglier side of circus life provides a crucial backdrop to the story, especially as it relates to the circus’s newest attraction, a four-ton pink-and-gray-mottled Indian elephant named Rosie. Rosie becomes Jacob’s charge and the center of Marlena’s new act, which means that the circus’s viablity literally rides on her enormous shoulders. Jacob, having studied veterinary science, is sympathetic to the animal’s plight, which is why he is resistant to the use of the “bull hook,” a particularly ugly instrument used to jab through the elephant’s thick hide as motivation. There are moments of extreme cruelty in the film, and at its best it uses these to emphasize the extremes to which those in dire economic straits will go to ensure their survival. Jacob is the idealist, which is why we are encouraged to side with him, but the film ultimately works because it doesn’t turn August into a simple, one-note villain. How could it, with an actor as dynamic as Christoph Waltz playing him? As he did with the unnerving Nazi “Jew Hunter” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009), Waltz finds some sense of humanity beneath his character’s villainy, making it clear why Marlena would be involved with him even as he threatens and terrifies her and others. His charm is what makes his sadism so meaningful.
Yet, when the film founders, it is primarily because there is little chemistry between Witherspoon and Pattinson. Whatever heat is generated between their characters is largely of narrative necessity; we know they have to be attracted to each other because they each represent a dimension of decency in a world of cruelty and exploitation, with Rosie standing in the middle as the big, four-ton symbol of all that is noble and admirable in the world. If that sounds too easy, it is, but director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) understands that viewers might not be looking for anything more complicated or scary. When the film climaxes with lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) running lose and threatening innocent patrons, it has a weird jolt of terror that seems out of place with the rest of the movie, which is perhaps why it ends so quickly and with so little comment (Did anyone get mauled? Any deaths?). Water for Elephants delivers a well-measured dose of Hollywood escapism, and anyone who finds that inherently wrong should probably steer clear.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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