Water for Elephants ***
Directed by: Francis Lawrence.
Written by: Richard LaGravenese based on the novel by Sara Gruen.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Marlena), Robert Pattinson (Jacob), Christoph Waltz (August), Paul Schneider (Charlie), Jim Norton (Camel), Hal Holbrook (Old Jacob), Mark Povinelli (Kinko / Walter), Richard Brake (Grady), Stephen Taylor (Wade), Ken Foree (Earl), Scott MacDonald (Blackie).
Water for Elephants is a nostalgic look back at the circus’ of yesteryear. It begins in the early 1930s, as the Depression is just starting to grip America in poverty. We first meet Jacob (Pattinson) as he is about to take his final exams at Cornell, and become a Vet, just like his Polish immigrant father. But then a car accident kills both his parents, and reveals unknown amounts of debt to Jacob. He has lost his only family and his means of support. He decides to ride the rails to get a job – and ends up jumping on a train for a travelling circus. The Ringmaster, August (Christoph Waltz), wants to throw Jacob off but when he learns he is an Ivy League trained vet, he decides to keep him on.
What follows that is a movie that is fairly hard to believe, and has heaping doses of melodrama and soap opera theatrics. Jacob falls in love with August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) – the two bonding over their love of animals. August turns out to be cruel, and perhaps a little mentally deranged, as he beats the animals, red lights his men when he cannot afford to pay them (that is throwing them out of a moving train), and treats Jacob alternately like a friend, and a cruel abuser. All of this is set against the backdrop of the “Most Spectacular Show on Earth”, the Barzini brothers circus (don’t mention Ringling brothers – August hates Ringling brothers).
The film, based on the bestseller by Sara Gruen (of which it is surprisingly faithful, especially when you consider they dropped a major character – in the book, August was just in charge of the animals, not the whole show, but the Ringmaster is not here) is not a great film, but it is an involving one. It holds your interest from beginning to end. In a way, a movie like this needs a calm center, and that is what Pattinson’s Jacob provides the audience – a newbie to this world that acts as out conduit into it. Witherspoon is also quite good as Marlena – beautiful and charming, but really just a young woman (younger than Witherspoon is in real life), who has been caught over her head. It is Waltz that commands our attention – just like he did in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (although, this role is nowhere near that one – how could it be?). He has crazed eyes at times in this movie, but is also capable of being charming – at times even likable – which makes his cruelty all the more painful. And Rosie the Elephant adds a great deal to the proceedings as well.
Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), Water for Elephants is not a great movie. It is too predictable for that, and a little too sudsy for my taste, but it is a movie that is involving and interesting throughout. Even though I knew the story beforehand (having read the book), the movie held my interest and entertained me. No, it’s not great. But it’s pretty darn good.