Water For Elephants (2011) Review (PG-13)
WARNING: SPOILERS TOWARDS THE END. YOU”VE BEEN WARNED.
The story of Water For Elephants begins in modern times with an elderly gentleman (Hal Holbrook) who appears while a circus is trying to close up shop and move on to the next town’s performance. He seems to be a little confused, so the proprietor of the circus takes him in while he tries to contact a nursing home whose residents had been shuttled in to attend earlier that night. While doing this the older man relates that he had once worked for a famous circus that went out of business in 1931. Fascinated the proprietor asks to hear his tale before calling the nursing home.
And so he begins to recollect the days of the Great Depression when he was a young man attending Cornell to become an animal vet. Everything is going according to plan until his parents are killed in an accident. Because they mortgaged the house to send him to school, he loses the family home. Distraught, he packs his suitcase and hops the first train out of town.
As fate would have it, the train he tries to stow away on is the Benzeni Brothers Circus Train. He befriends some of the circus grunts and remains with them hoping to get a job, watching as they set up and perform a show. His eyes almost immediately come to a resting place on the star performer, Marlena, who happens to be the wife of the owner, August.
Jacob lands the job when August sees that he might have some use. When Jacob reveals that the most prized horse in Marlena’s act is suffering from a painful and terminal affliction, he suggests that the horse be put down. August however introduces him to the harsh realities of a circus during the Depression, saying a horse in pain is less important to men without work. Against his wishes (but in line with Marlena’s) Jacob puts the horse down. This enrages August, but after initially threatening to have Jacob killed, reveals that, lucky for the young vet that the lions and tigers need to be fed, so it works out.
Time moves along and Jacob covets August’s wife from a distance until August buys an elephant from another circus that has folded its tents. That’s when August asks Jacob to begin training the elephant, which puts him in close proximity to Marlena, who will be the star of the new act…. And I think, everyone can see where that’s going.
At times, Water For Elephants is visually stunning as a story about the circus should be. For a movie that banters often about life as an illusion, I thought the story (and the visuals) were a little lacking in cinematic magic. It seemed the director was a little too pragmatic and needed not a better eye for visuals, but maybe a more artistic one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well shot, but as I said I was expecting a little more of the inherent illusion that travels with a circus.
The fact that most of the characters were rather bland didn’t help. Even the protagonist Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and the ‘forbidden’ love interest, the married Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), were both rather stoic. Jacob is not the kind of guy that wears his emotions on his sleeve. If he has a passion for becoming a veterinarian, it’s never apparent. It works more as a plot device to work him into having an important role in the circus. Marlena is a woman without her own dreams. She’s only married to the Ringmaster and performing in the circus because she feels there’s nothing for her in the ‘real world’.
The one character that was more keyed up was Christoph Waltz’s August, a ringmaster (and circus owner) who seemed to still be playing his role in Inglourious Basterds. I don’t think it was his fault as much as the writing. He starts as a hardnosed business type protecting his employees. Then he’s a guy with uncontrollable temper issues. Then he’s a nice guy. Then he’s a guy with uncontrollable temper issues because of his drinking. Then he’s a nice guy. Then he’s pure evil killing his own employees. It was never consistent.
The love story was also disappointing in its lack of fire, being more like attraction by osmosis. The finale fell mostly flat with me, and in saying that, it’s time for my second installment of…
Hollywood. I Can Fix Your Film. The biggest problem of the film is that it promises a tragedy in its opening and then illogically gives you a happy ending. You expect when the older Jacob (Hal Holbrook) begins telling his tale with obvious regret/heartbreak that he lost the love of his life (in the incident that put August’s circus out of business), but no. He ends with not tragedy, but that he lived a flowery life ever after with Marlena which renders his words (of “I’m not running away with the circus. I’m coming home”) far less meaningful.
It implies his best memories were with the circus, but the story’s not about him loving the circus. It’s about Jacob’s love for Marlena, so… without him having lost her, there is no symbolic gesture of having lived in regret and going back to something that reminded him of not what he loved, but who. The story contradicts itself with a confused happy ending inserted at the end of the recollection and the denouement.
I haven’t even mentioned the incident that occurs at the climax involving Rosie the elephant that came off as silly and forced. It seems that they tried to connect the incident so as to give the title purpose, but really elephants are not alluded to enough to make the motif important. What happens with the elephant throughout is more incidental than substantive. It’s like the director gives the all important ‘character arc’ to the elephant without having made the film about the elephant. It’s like the writer couldn’t make up his mind about what story he wanted to tell, the love story or the elephant’s morale tale, and muddled both stories in doing so. This IS a step up in quality by director Francis Lawrence whose past films include crap CGI FX mediocrities I Am Legend and Constantine, even if it does have glaring flaws. I liked the movie, but felt like Water For Elephants could have been a classic film instead of just the good time waster that it is.