Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Water For Elephants

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider 
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Poor Reese Witherspoon. Forced to share the screen with an untrained sideshow spectacle who's poked and prodded at for audiences' enjoyment as an evil carnival barker urges them to pour out their pockets in hopes of getting a glimpse. No, it's not Rosie the elephant I'm referring to, but her other co-star, Robert Pattinson, who now faces the challenge of trying to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor after being established as a consumer product studios can make money off of. And outside of the Twilight franchise, even that assumption is uncertain. He's got a long road ahead of him and probably knows it, but all things considered, this is a decent first step. Water for Elephants is the right type of project for him to get his feet wet, playing to his strengths while offering him as few opportunities as possible to embarrass himself. So that's good news in itself. It also helps the film is an easy, enjoyable watch and at least slightly less ridiculous than I expected.

Adapted from Sara Gruen's popular novel and directed with old school flare by Francis Lawrence, the film employs one of my favorite narrative devices: An old man looking back on his life. Unfortunately, that promising device is executed about as clumsily as possible, treated as a mere afterthought before the film flashes back to The Great Depression when 23-year-old Cornell veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) loses both his parents in a car crash. Adrift in life, he starts riding the rails, ending up on the Benzini Brothers Circus Train. He meets the controlling August (Christoph Waltz) the circus owner and animal trainer who's married to the beautiful Marlena (Witherspoon), and prone to unpredictable fits of sadistic rage, treating her almost as badly as he does his animals. After an awkward first meeting, August hires Jacob as the circus vet but it becomes a complicated working arrangement when Jacob starts to fall for Marlena. It might be the one element in the circus that August can't control, with the results of that fledgling relationship having potentially dangerous consequences for all involved.

The big draw here is the circus setting and period atmosphere. From a technical standpoint it's virtually flawless and looks great. There are a bunch of Oscar nominees involved in the costuming, production, art direction and set design and it really shows. From a visual standpoint it actually feels like The Greatest Show on Earth or one of those old style Hollywood epics from the 1950's they don't attempt anymore. The script, however, makes it feel slightly smaller than it should. More like a TV movie, as the doomed lovers plot can't always keep up with the inspired circus backdrop. Pattinson, looking less pale and vampire-like than usual, effectively broods and longingly stares at Reese, but it's clearly the more experienced Witherspoon who's carrying this. She's a genuine movie star in the truest sense and the unattainable Marlena character fits her like a glove. Unlike her role, Pattinson's could have easily been swapped out with just about any other actor in his age range or older with no harm done to the film, but he holds his own, giving what resembles at times a passably strong performance. The two have okay (but not great) chemistry and their age difference isn't much of a factor. If anything, it's interesting to see a younger man and older women for a change, and an argument could be made it better suits the nature of this particular story of the protagonist being shown the ropes.

Watching I couldn't help but wish everything else had as much bite as Christoph Waltz's psycho circus ringmaster. Again channeling his sadistic streak from Inglourious Basterds he seems to be the go-to sociopath in movies these days, infusing each scene with his co-stars with a genuine sense of danger. There are points we fear for their lives, not to mention the life of the elephant. Besides the framing device mishap (which strangely has the younger Jacob narrating the story even though his older self, played by Hal Holbrook, is telling it in the present day) my biggest complaint is the film does lack that extra edge to put it over the top. Whether there was a fear in alienating faithful devotees of the novel, Pattinson fans or just a concern with preserving that audience friendly PG-13 tone, there are times it seems to be playing it safe when it really needs to cut loose with the romance and violence. Other than that it's difficult to pinpoint much Water for Elephants does wrong, and believe me I was looking. Chalk it up to low expectations if you must, but there's something to be said for telling a simple, but visually compelling story in a smart, straightforward way.

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