Water for Elephants (United States, 2011)

April 23, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Water for Elephants Poster

The primary draw for Water for Elephants is the pairing of Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson (ignore the ten year age gap) in a love story based on the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen. Sadly, passion and romance are two ingredients missing from this melodrama, which does an excellent job of re-creating the Depression-era circus business but is less successful in generating the needed heat between the two leads. The great intangible of chemistry isn't present, making Water for Elephants seem longer and slower than one might hope.

There aren't any truly awful performances. Robert Pattinson shows the same kind brooding melancholia that haunts his character in the Twilight movies; if Pattinson desires an escape hatch from the typecasting cage, he might want to try a comedy. Otherwise, he'll be doomed to take roles devised for a second-rate James Dean until the box office runs dry. Reese Witherspoon shows none of the boundless charisma and energy that propelled her onto the A-list a decade ago, but she looks cute sitting astride an elephant. The scene-stealer is Christoph Waltz, whose portrayal is so volcanic and persuasive that he almost singlehandedly makes Water for Elephants worthwhile. It's too bad his complex, psychologically disturbed character turns into a generic villain as the movie careens toward its climax.

For the most part, Richard LaGravenese's script is faithful to the source novel, although some characters have been combined and others deleted altogether. There are also obvious instances in which subplots have been clumsily half-deleted, leaving behind extraneous remnants. The production, as assembled by director Francis Lawrence, is at its most exacting when presenting some of the nuts-and-bolts details of how the circus business worked during an era when money and jobs were in short supply. The Benzini Brothers circus travels from locale to locale by train. The performers and workers live in cramped quarters that they call home; they risk being thrown off if the bosses are short on cash. The process by which the Big Top is assembled is detailed in a short but unforgettable sequence. Unfortunately, all of this is merely color and background for the flat, uninspired love story.

The story is narrated by a 90-year old Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), who gazes back nearly 70 years (to when he's played by Robert Pattinson) through the mists of time. Just as he is about to graduate from Cornell with a degree in veterinary science, his parents are tragically killed in a car crash, leaving him homeless and penniless. Jumping aboard a train with the intention of traveling somewhere... anywhere... he discovers that his mode of transportation isn't an anonymous freight locomotive, but the one carrying the trappings of the circus. Rather than tossing Jacob off the train, the owner, August (Christoph Waltz), hires him to be the official Benzini Brothers vet. Jacob cares for the animals and trains the newest attraction, an elephant, but he also begins to fall in love with the circus' star and August's wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Their clandestine affair arouses August's suspicion and murderous jealousy.

The production design is impressive; Water for Elephants feels like a slice of Depression era lore. However, as good as Lawrence is in depicting the construction of the Big Top and the subsequent show beneath it, he seems lost when it comes to generating heat between his leads. Perhaps hampered by the necessary PG-13 rating, the sex scene, which is intended to be a combination of tasteful eroticism and tenderness, embodies neither quality. It's merely repetitive close-ups of a man and a woman kissing and removing clothing in poorly lit conditions.

There's an old-fashioned vibe to Water for Elephants; it's the kind of movie Hollywood once turned out with regularity but rarely does anymore. In the best of these films, the lead characters connect with such force that their emotions carry them through the story. Here, unfortunately, August turns out to be more intriguing than Jacob and Marlena combined. He draws the attention while the script focuses on them. That structural flaw might have been avoided with a different cast; expecting the mismatched Pattinson and Witherspoon to inspire audiences to yearn for their coupling demands an effort of elephantine proportions.

Water for Elephants (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2011-04-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1