I’m fully prepared for film nerds to burn me at the stake for saying this, but I enjoyed the hell out of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. I know, I know. It’s a romantic movie starring TWILIGHT’s Robert Pattinson so why in HELL would anyone spend any waking moment watching something like this, let alone even consider watching it? I have various reasons. I’m also not a fan of Robert Pattinson fan and I don’t say that because its expected for guys to hate him. I genuinely think he’s a bad actor and the only reason he remains employed is because of his looks and nothing more. However, I’m also a huge fan of the first part of the 20th Century (1900-1950). WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is setting during the Depression and it takes place in a circus and that fascinates me. What fascinates me even more is that this film also stars Christoph Waltz, who I have not gotten enough of since his auspicious American debut in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

For those of you who read for pleasure, which seems to be an increasingly forgotten pastime in the U.S., you’re probably aware of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. The novel was a huge bestselling novel that, from what I hear, was a pretty good read (admittedly, I did not read the book, but I DO otherwise read for pleasure). The story is set during the Depression and its about a college student, Jakob (Robert Pattinson), whose parents are killed in a car accident on the day he’s supposed to take his last final exams at Cornell and become a veterinarian. Penniless, Jakob decides to walk to New York City, where he’s sure to find work to support himself. As he follows a railroad track to his destination, a train roars by and Jakob hitches a ride on it. He discovers it’s a circus train and from there on, his life forever changes. Jakob uses his vet skills to land a job in the circus tending to animals. He meets Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), with whom he falls in love with. Problem: Marlena is married to the ruthless owner of the circus, August (Christoph Waltz).

The novel was adapted by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (THE FISHER KING, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, and the writer/director of LIVING OUT LOUD) and I can think of few other screenwriters who are as well suited to adapt this romantic drama. The story is not original as few romances are and you can predict the beats of the story from a mile away. There is nothing in this film that could be considered thought-provoking and whatever social messages the story contains are safely restrained so as to not offend the audience’s sensibilities. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is pure escapist fantasy that, although set during the Great Depression, it spins its tale in an almost fairy tale-like manner.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS has the all-too-familiar set-up of a poor boy who falls for an unattainable girl who belongs to a wealthy or powerful (and usually jealous and/or wrathful) husband/boyfriend. This is a more preferable set-up than the more stale setup of a boy simply pursuing a girl with tenacity and determination being the only obstacles to getting the girl (e.g. YOU’VE GOT MAIL, THE WEDDING PLANNER, and ONLY YOU). The story takes this framework and executes a story that, although predictable and familiar, it engages you through its circus setting, colorful characters, and high stakes. You care enough for Jakob’s plight to see him through his predicament and to see how in hell he’s going to survive the ruthlessness of August, the circus owner. Giving the film even more emotional weight is an elephant (Rosie), who is entrusted to Jakob for training. Rosie will immediately win you over. In fact, I was far more emotionally invested in Rosie’s plight than in Jakob and Marlena’s situation.

Robert Pattinson is unlikely to go down in history as one of Hollywood’s best leading men. Like Sam Worthington, Pattinson had the fortune of starring in an iconic movie (TWILIGHT) that by virtue of its built-in success, it incidentally elevated his status to a celebrity. However, watch any of his movies and you’ll be pressed to identify more than 2 facial expressions. Obviously, Pattinson was cast in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS in the hopes of attracting the much-coveted young female audience (not a bad idea considering the book was mostly read by adult women so it would be necessary to find another way to attract younger women). He merely serves as a point of attraction for women. However, I do give him a tiny bit of credit. Pattinson’s performance won’t make you cringe or laugh out loud. If that were so, I wouldn’t be praising the film because considering Jacob is the main character in the story, a horrible performance would have poisoned any redeeming values the film would otherwise have. Pattinson does a slightly sub-average job here and he’s pretty much saved by his co-stars performances and the rest of the film.

I wasn’t expecting much from Reese Witherspoon either so it was a pleasant surprise to see her give something more than I was expecting. Admittedly, I never saw her Academy Award-winning performance in WALK THE LINE so it would be unfair for me to call her an average actress. Besides, Witherspoon has given us other worthy performances in the past (ELECTION and LEGALLY BLONDE). At the same time, Witherspoon has also been in quite a number of mediocre films that have dampened any enthusiasm I once had for her. I’m thinking of films such as SWEET HOME ALABAMA and VANITY FAIR, and other projects that either looked uninteresting or were slammed by critics.

Here, the one thing that struck me about Witherspoon’s performance was her ability to capture the diction and manner of speaking of women in the 1930s. An actor’s inability or unwillingness to adopt the speech mannerisms of the time period he/she is playing has always been a major annoyance for me. Ignoring such a seemingly inconsequential detail can and does destroy the authenticity of the time period the film is trying to recreate. As a result, you no longer feel like you’re in that time period and can totally ruin a film. Witherspoon had the wherewithal to avoid this problem and she does a fine job playing Christoph Waltz’s wife, Marlena. However, there is one major drawback to her performance, which isn’t really her fault, but it’s the complete lack of chemistry between her and Robert Pattinson. This again comes back to Pattinson and his inability to act like his life depended on it. His lack of talent kills the potential for any chemistry between the two characters. This is integral to the story because, after all, this is a romance and a lack of romantic chemistry is like a horror film not having anything scary or suspenseful in it.

We finally come to Christoph Waltz, who plays August, the owner of the circus. As has been the case with every film I have seen Waltz in, the best and most memorable parts of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS are the ones with this Austrian actor. Since his defining role in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, Waltz has starred in 4 films, all American (THE GREEN HORNET, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and CARNAGE). None of these films have been widely received by critics or audiences, but in all the ones I have seen (did not see THE THREE MUSKETEERS), Waltz has stolen the show to such a remarkable degree that he’s even upstaged co-stars who are considered immensely talented in their own right (e.g. Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster in CARNAGE). In WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, Waltz’s August is a complex antagonist who at various moments throughout the film, you either like him or you hate him. To a certain degree you sympathize with August’s cruel management style of running his circus. He justifies his dictatorial style as being necessary for his circus to survive amidst the harsh economic conditions of the Great Depression and competition from the rival Ringling Bros. circus. At one point during the movie, August explains to Jakob that although he may be a taskmaster, at least he takes care of his employees and they, unlike millions of others, have jobs. At the same time, August has a BAD temper that ultimately contributes to his downfall. He abuses his animals (there is one particular scene that is difficult to watch where August mercilessly beats Rosie, the elephant) and views them as mere investments who must perform until they are physically unable to. Although he employs people to work for him, August is also an uncompromising bastard, who sends his goons to beat anyone who crosses him. Such as Jakob. Waltz gives a memorable performance that elevates WATER FOR ELEPHANTS above what it deserves to be.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a gorgeous movie to look at. Shot by Rodrigo Prieto (FRIDA, 25th HOUR, WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS), the film’s vibrant and colorful look reflects the circus setting of the story. Despite the domineering threat imposed by Arthur over the circus, the circus appears like an almost enchanted fairy land amidst the surrounding conditions of the Great Depression. A few aesthetic flourishes are scattered throughout the film to further reinforce this. For example, there is an early scene just before Jakob joins the circus when Jakob is surrounded by fireflies in a wooded area. In another scene, Jakob and August stand atop the moving circus train during a moonlit night. Like a Grimm Fairy Tale, these enchanting looking scenes are underscored by horrific imagery such as the aforementioned beating of Rosie, the elephant, mistreatment of the circus employees, and August’s frequent displays of rage.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS has a beautifully executed story that is marred by the lack of chemistry between its two main stars. This is an old-school Hollywood romance like the ones the studios used to make a long time ago. Its old-fashioned in a good way and from what I have heard, the book is even better (when isn’t the book better, right?).

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