Water for Elephants is a listless depression-era romance, full of melodrama and predictability. In theaters nationwide today, this Fox 2000 Pictures release has some charming moments and great time period elements, but overall the cookie-cutter love story and missing chemistry between the leads made it lackluster and largely forgettable.
Based on the novel by Sara Gruen of the same name, Water for Elephants is a love story with a 1930’s circus as a backdrop. It’s about the illusions in life we set up for ourselves and for others. At least, that’s what it wants to be about. What it ends up being is a very over-done love story with a one-dimensional villain and two dull romantic leads in Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.
The film starts out much like James Cameron’s Titanic in the way it sets up the story. An old, old man (we’re talking Crypt Keeper old) is loitering in the parking lot of a modern day circus, blocking traffic. The manager comes out and helps him inside and tries to find out where he’s from. It’s revealed that the old man is named Jacob Jankowski, and that he used to work for the Benzini Brothers Circus. Immediately the manager is intrigued and asks about the mysterious disaster, and the old Jacob begins to relate the tragic events leading up to the end of the Benzini Brothers Circus back in the 1930s.
Most of the movie takes place as a flashback. Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is a young man from a good home, about to take his finals and graduate with a degree in veterinary medicine from Cornell. When his parents die in a tragic auto accident, he finds himself homeless and penniless and walking the rails looking for work. He hitches a ride on a passing train and enters the strange, sometimes frightening, world of the circus.
The Benzini Brothers Circus is run by a power-hungry control freak named August (Cristoph Waltz). His rage issues are just the beginning of his problems, which include insane jealousy of his pretty young wife and star attraction Marlene (Witherspoon). When Jacob and Marlene start to bond over newly acquired elephant Rosie, all hell breaks loose under the big top.
Given all the buzz and hype around the literary roots of this film, I found the story surprisingly predictable and clichéd. There was the older, abusive and jealous husband. There was the handsome, sensitive newcomer and the young beautiful wife just waiting to be swept away in love. The romance aspect felt so over-done and worn out. And the story set up was just like the Titanic’s, except with a man and the circus disaster instead of a woman and the Titanic disaster.
Then there was the deplorable lack of chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon. I’m not sure if it was an age difference thing or just two different styles of acting. Either way, shame shame on Gruen and screenwriter Richard LaGravenes (P.S. I Love You) for their cookie-cutter love story. And I guess some finger wagging should also go to casting director Denise Chamian for her choice in romantic leads.
What did work in this film is the great time period elements and atmosphere. America in the grips of the Great Depression came to stark life under the deft directorial touch of Francis Lawrence. Though he’s known most for his work on music videos and supernatural action films (I Am Legend and Constantine), he proves he can handle softer period dramas as well. There was a warm lighting on most of the shots that reminded one of dusk, and a dusty yellow look that fit the wide open areas of early 1930’s America. The costuming was first rate, and the circus elements appropriately vintage and authentic. Most of the sets were interesting and fun, though there were a few scenes on the top of the train at night that looked extremely fake.
Separately, Witherspoon and Pattinson were engaging enough. Together, they fizzled. They just didn’t sell passionate, destined-to-be lovers. I did think Witherspoon performed better than Pattinson on the whole. Pattinson, though he’s been in other roles, is best known for playing sexy vampire Edward in the Twilight Saga. If any Twi-hards came out to see him, they weren‘t disappointed. Between supposedly wooing Witherspoon’s character and taking care of the circus animals, he gave plenty of intense stares into the camera and debonair smiles at the oddest of times.
Waltz played villainous August with a one-note, over-the-top performance. If he had a moustache, he would have been twirling it; and I’m not convinced his creepiness was all acting. But the real scene stealer in Water for Elephants was Rosie, the elephant. Not only did she perform tricks in more than one language, she drank hooch and danced. Impressive.
Water for Elephants had some great atmosphere and depression-era circus culture, but the storyline was trite and the romance predictable. I’m not saying there weren’t a few charming scenes, but most had to do with circus animals, especially Rosie with her cute elephant freckles and tricks. The ending, though no surprise, was satisfying enough. All in all, if you’re not a Team Edward tweener out for a fix, or a fan of tired love stories, best avoid this one.