Water for Elephants (2011) directed by Francis Lawrence
I remember going to the circus once when I was a kid. I was too young to remember the details but I remember seeing elephants and lions and acrobats through rings of fire. There may or may not have been clowns coming out of tiny cars, but I think I would have remembered that since I was terrified of clowns ever since watching It. And I definitely ate cotton candy. All in all, it was probably a pretty awesome day. If I could to go back in time and relive that day, however, I'm sure it wouldn't have been as sweet as I remembered. Maybe it was really cold or raining that day. Maybe I did see elephants but they didn't do anything remarkable. Maybe I saw firsthand their treatment of animals. But the circus, for many, will always bring back fond memories and a yearning to return to our youth.
This is exactly how Water for Elephants begins. An elderly man shows up late night at a circus after hours lost and confused. The man running the circus invites him inside out of the cold rain and the old timer begins a flashback story a la Titanic. We are then transported back to 1931 when Jacob, played by Robert Pattinson, is about to take his college exams to become a veterinarian. His parents die suddenly in a car accident, causing young Jacob to reevaluate his life and run away, hitching a ride on a circus train hobo style. He manages to find a job with the circus doing menial jobs when he is introduced to the big boss, August, played by Christoph Waltz of Inglorious Basterds fame. August initially dismisses him until Jacob reveals he is a vet and can help take care of the animals. Then just as quickly as August dismisses him, he takes Jacob up to the top of the train and tells him "You and me kiddo, we can take over this whole joint!" or something to that effect. Then we are later introduced to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction of the circus, who also happens to be August's wife. I don't think I'm giving too much away by telling you that this is a love triangle movie in a circus setting. That much can be gathered from the previews alone and you pretty much get what you expect. You got the mysterious young hero, the often cruel but charismatic boss who takes the young fellow under his wings, the pretty trophy wife with a hint of sadness in her eyes, and a giant elephant that much of the plot revolves around. Watching it all unfold I kept wondering if Marlena dies in the end, telling Jacob, "Promise me to never let go!" but they weren't getting any closer to a large body of water so I wasn't sure how they'd incorporate that in. It's a time period romance where how much you want them to get together is driven by how much you like these characters, which is to say, "Ehhhhhhhh." Clearly, we are supposed to want Jacob and Marlena together, not necessarily because we believe them to be soul mates or right for each other, but because August is a total ass and such an obvious villain. Why was Marlena even with him in the first place? But in the end, the story does well enough to make it all work.
Nostalgic time period romances are typically helped by beautiful cinematography that gives the story that old fashioned look meant to conjure up sentiment and the idea that the beauty you see on screen is matched by the beauty in the story. Water for Elephants does look good, even if it is a romanticized look into the Great Depression and the hard life of traveling circus folks. The circus animals are nicely incorporated and never look out of place, even when the elephant does handstands.
Christopher Waltz and Reese Witherspoon are fine and work with what they're given. Waltz clearly loves the role of the villain as he plays them well. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand...
Do women really find this guy attractive? He does have that smolder going on, but almost all lead actors have that and he's pasty white. I thought that was just from Twilight, but apparently he's naturally pretty pale. His eyes always seem to be glossed over as if he just got trashed at the club and his smirk makes him look like a smug d-bag. Maybe I'm just bitter that Bella chose Edward over Jacob, but I mean seriously, there is no way Pattinson is better looking than Taylor Lautner.
The other issue I have with Water For Elephants is that it's an obvious novel adaptation. The scene where the old man begins the flashback is supposed to come from natural conversation, but it sounds like he's reading directly from the book. Other bits of dialogue work in stories but not when spoken out loud. For instance, the scene where one of the guys is showing Jacob around the circus train sounds like he's explaining things for our benefit rather than Jacob's. And as great as Christop Waltz is, some of his dialogue is much too grandiose to believe (like the aforementioned bit on top of the train).
I'm as sentimental as the next guy, so I enjoyed the parts I was supposed to enjoy, felt the things I know they wanted me to feel. I'm a pretty manipulatable movie viewer, which I am rather glad for. It allows me to watch movies like Water for Elephants guilt free, happy to go along for the ride. This movie works just enough to do the trick, but nothing more.