Review: Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon make 'Water For Elephants' effective old-fashioned melodrama
I never read Sara Gruen's novel, but having seen the film version of "Water For Elephants," I have a pretty good idea what to expect. I have no doubt that Richard LaGravenese has crafted the classiest possible version of what feels like a very old-fashioned melodrama, while leaving much of the texture of Gruen's novel intact. I'm almost curious enough to go read a few chapters now to see if my guess is right.
Almost. The thing is, what praise I have for "Water For Elephants" isn't really about the story. Instead, I'm impressed by a few of the performers and, in particular, by the way director Francis Lawrence approached the material. Especially in the first half of the film, he captures a romantic version of the circus on film that I'm not sure ever really existed. He makes it feel real, though, and evokes a nostalgia for a time when you could hop the rails in search of some sort of direction when your life was falling apart, and when running away with the circus was this charming possibility. There's one scene in particular, the first time they're setting up the circus and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is watching them, that is honestly one of the best versions of that scene I've ever seen done. It's alluring in all the right ways, and by the end of it, I wanted to run away and join the circus, too, if only for a weekend.
The film itself is a little more uneven. There are some things I like quite a bit about the film, but there are things about it that also land with a thud. I think you should take measure of your own appetite for romantic melodrama and use that to steer your decision about whether or not this one's for you. It's "Notebook" country, although nowhere near as scientifically and successfully manipulative as that one. Like that film and "Titanic," this movie is built around a present-day framing device. An old man shows up at the circus, looking for his son, and realizes he's too late. The show's over. The guy running the circus invites the old man in out of the rain, and they start talking about the old days. Anytime you put two actors like Hal Holbrook and Paul Schneider in a room just talking, they'll do right by you, and the framing device certainly works at setting up the story. Right up front, there's an indicator of where the film is going, a mention of what we can expect from the resolution, and so the film becomes all about getting to that thing they mention.
It makes me laugh that Robert Pattinson is playing a character named Jacob in this one, but honestly, he continues to impress me as a guy who just needs to get past this particular moment in his career so he can start being viewed as an actor and not just his franchise. Jacob is in his last year at Cornell, studying to be a vet, when his parents are both killed in a car accident. It's the depth of the Great Depression, and Jacob learns that his father has left him absolutely nothing. No house. No money. Only a pile of debt. Dazed and adrift, he ends up near a train track, and he hears that midnight whistle. He catches a ride, and before he knows it, he finds himself drawn into the orbit of August (Christoph Waltz), the owner and ringleader for the Banzini Brothers Circus. More importantly, he finds himself drawn to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), August's wife and star attraction. Jacob makes himself indispensable to the show and ends up hired to be the vet for all of the animals. And for a while, the romance is between Jacob and this new life that he's dropped into.
Gradually, though, as he starts to learn the nature of both August and Marlena, he realizes that things are more complicated than they seemed at first. The circus is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, August is a cruel taskmaster, and Marlena is a caged bird. Just when it seems the brakes are about to come off, August makes a final effort and buys an elephant. He assigns Jacob to handle it, and he tells Marlena that she's going to learn to ride it. Everything depends on the two of them making the new act work, so emotions are running high even before Jacob and Marlena start to recognize an attraction to one another. Once they do, though, all bets are off, and things begin to accelerate to an eventual and duly apocalyptic ending.
For me, Pattinson and Waltz are the movie. Witherspoon seems wildly miscast, and that may be my personal thing. Marlena is meant to be this angel, this creature who casts a spell over Jacob the moment he sees her, who drives August to madness, and I just don't buy it with Reese. Pattinson doesn't have to express much range here, but he does exactly what he's been hired to do. Waltz was definitely hired to play a character not unlike what he played in "Inglorious Basterds," which is not to say I think this was influenced by that film. It's just that you need a very particular guy to play both charming and spitting mad, sometimes within the same scene, and Waltz has demonstrated an ability to suggest all sorts of things simmering deep down inside.
Technically, the film is handsomely made, and Rodrigo Prieto deserves special praise for the burnished hues of nostalgia he captured in the movie. James Newton Howard, on the other hand, scored this thing to within an inch of its life, and it gets oppressive at times.
No matter. For the audience that is familiar with the book or that just wants a two-handed weepie this weekend, "Water For Elephants" will deliver. My only words of warning would be that if you are sensitive to abuse of animals, even simulated, you might not be able to hang with this.
Or you'll grab a bull hook and chase Christoph Waltz down.
Either way, "Water For Elephants" opens tomorrow in theaters nationwide.
2013 | Comedy | NRSummary: Insanely funny comedy show created by Amy Schumer, who stars in brilliantly funny sketches about sex, city living, dating, and friendship.Director: Daniel Powell, Amy Schumer (creators)
Cast: Amy Schumer, Kevin Kane, Mike Houston
1995 | Mystery | NRSummary: Denzel Washington plays an out of work WWII vet who takes the wrong job and is soon neck-deep in a mess of politics, murder, and jazz in '40s Los Angeles.Director: Carl Franklin
Cast: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals
1993 | Sports | PGSummary: Emotionally powerful sports classic featuring Sean Astin as a skinny high school kid with big football dreams and the determination to make his way towards his dream team at Notre Dame.Director: David Anspaugh
Cast: Sean Astin, Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty
2013 | Thriller | RSummary: Based on the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) a Miami bodybuilder who wants to live the American dream. He would like to have the money that other people have. So he enlists the help of fellow bodybuilder Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-convict, Christian bodybuilder Paul Doyle (D...Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub
2008 | Science Fiction | PGSummary: Animated series continues the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as they battle the Emperor Palpatine, Count Dooku and General Grievous, but also takes time to explore other smaller characters in the Star Wars universe.Director: George Lucas (creator)
Cast: Tom Kane, Dee Bradley Baker, Matt Lanter
2013 | Drama | RSummary: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill have boundless energy in the story of a real-life commodities crook who earned millions through scummy small-time stock trades.Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
2007 | Comedy | PGSummary: Newlyweds Nick (Ice Cube) and Suzanne (Long) decide to move to the suburbs to provide a better life for their two kids. But their idea of a dream home is disturbed by a contractor (McGinley) with a bizarre approach to business.Director: Steve Carr
Cast: John C. McGinley, Ice Cube, Nia Long, Aleisha Allen
1996 | Crime | RSummary: Jerry, a small-town Minnesota car salesman is bursting at the seams with debt... but he's got a plan. He's going to hire two thugs to kidnap his wife in a scheme to collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. It's going to be a snap and nobody's going to get hurt... until people start ...Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare
1997 | Crime | RSummary: Quentin Tarantino adaptats an Elmore Leonard novel into this story of a few increasingly desperate people scraping to get by. It has deep soul, a wicked sense of humor, and Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Pam Grier, and Robert Forster.Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
Let Streaming Genie help you.