Thursday, April 21, 2011

A slow-moving 'Water for Elephants'

Witherspoon and Pattinson try to carry Water for Elephants, which has its charms, but never quite gels.
It's an old caution, but there's a reason actors don't like to work with animals. Four-legged performers seem to have an easier time capturing our affections than those who walk upright, even if one of the two-legged creatures happens to be Tween heartthrob Robert Pattinson.

Water for Elephants - a carefully burnished adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-selling 2007 novel about a struggling circus -- proves the point, at least it did for me. Humans aside, the character I most cared about in this diligent adaptation of Gruen's novel was Rosie, an elephant.

Set during the Depression, Water for Elephants quickly establishes itself as a nostalgia-heavy hybrid: part love story and part animal act.

A welcome crack of the ringmaster's whip might have sped us through some of the movie's duller spots, and the movie's cast never quite gets, but Water for Elephants survives on atmosphere and grace, partly because it has been photographed with a keen appreciation for Americana by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.

Working from a script by Richard LaGravenese, director Francis Lawrence applies liberal amounts of storybook glow to a production that makes improbable co-stars out of Pattinson of Twilight fame and Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds).

Pattinson may draw fans to a movie that displays him in a warmer light than the Twilight series in which he plays a vampire and world-class brooder. I'm still not sure about Pattinson's acting, but I'm relieved to know he can smile.

In Water for Elephants, Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowsi, a senior at Cornell University. Jacob's about to receive his degree in veterinary science, when he learns that his Polish immigrant parents have been killed in an automobile accident.

Distraught and disoriented, Jacob leaves school and hops a freight. He quickly learns that he's caught a ride with a train belonging to the Benzini Bros. Circus. Jacob signs on as a roustabout, but his veterinary talents soon earn him a higher spot on the circus totem.

The movie, of course, is no Dr. Dolitte. Jacob's immediately attracted to Marlena (Witherspoon), the star of the circus' centerpiece act. Decked out in glittering costumes, Marlena stands on the backs of galloping horses. Why this is such a special act never is made clear: I'm no circus expert, but women atop horses seems like three-ring boilerplate to me.

Every movie romance needs an obstacle. So it's no surprise that Marlena is married. Her husband August (Waltz) owns the circus; he's an impresario who blends old-world charm, entrepreneurial gusto, show-business savvy and outright sadism.

August, who regards himself as the ruler of this empire of illusion, employs a unique method of downsizing. When times get tough, he throws an excess worker or two off his moving train, a procedure called "redlighting." He also brutalizes the animals in his circus.

Someone decided that Witherspoon should adopt a Jean Harlow platinum blonde look that fits the period. But she's in a role that would have perfectly fit a young Jessica Lange, someone with less of a cheerleader vibe.

Pattinson and Witherspoon may be a bit of a mismatch. There's chemistry between them - just not enough.

An alternately charming and scary Waltz does a semi-reprise of the sadistic Nazi he played in Inglourious Basterds. "The guy certainly knows how to hold the screen.

Water for Elephants both sentimentalizes and deglamorizes circus life, where all the patrons are known as rubes and the workers make up a close-knit fraternity of the alienated.

Lawrence begins the story with framing device. Hal Holbrook appears as the aged Jacob, a 90-year-old who has escaped from the old age home where he resides to visit a circus that has hit town. A circus manager listens as Jacob tells what has become a legendary story: how the Benzini Bros. Circus finally collapsed.

Because Jacob provides the story with off-screen narration, I found it mildly troubling that Lawrence used Pattinson to narrate instead of relying on Holbook's barrel-aged tones, which would have given the story more flavor.

The story becomes increasingly melodramatic, and no one is likely to confuse Water for Elephants with a realistic look at the Depression, but Lawrence seems to be bending over backward to be respectful of Gruen's novel, an understandable strategy but one that doesn't always result in the best movie.

Fittingly, the other star of Water for Elephants is Rosie, an elephant August buys to boost the circus' sagging box office. And, yes, Rosie steals every scene in which she appears. So let me relieve you of some guilt. If you feel more for Rosie than for any of the movie's human characters, I doubt whether you'll be alone. That says a lot for Tai (the 42-year-old elephant playing Rosie) and not as much for the movie itself.

1 comment:

Jenna B. said...

"Why this is such a special act never is made clear: I'm no circus expert, but women atop horses seems like three-ring boilerplate to me."

Of course I am no expert, but I would hypothesize that it's simply the romantic allure of a pretty girl in a circus that is part of the appeal. Old circus acts were, pretty often, freak shows (if you can pardon the expression in today's world). Otherwise, I'd consider it simply a conceit of the movie/story, and perhaps colored by the narrator's point of view.

(By the way, very much enjoy reading your reviews. Keep up the great work.)