Just to get it out of the way early, Robert Pattinson does a decent enough job as the lead in the adaptation of the Sara Gruen bestseller Water for Elephants and provides some measure of hope that he may have a viable future once the Twilight series ends. Granted, the only non â€œvampireâ€ related role Iâ€™ve seen Pattinson in without the words “Harry Potter” in the title was last yearâ€™s horrendous Remember Me, so seeing the WFE trailers with him in the lead alongside two Oscar winners led me to think heâ€™d be the talent Black Hole in this trio. Again, heâ€™s not, and there are times when his work is better than the film heâ€™s in.
Just goes to show what you can do when youâ€™re not playing a mopey little bitch in an inexplicably popular teeny serial.
Time for some SPOILER TALK! Below are SPOILERS for Water for Elephants. Free free to add your thoughts in the Comments section.
Water for Elephants opens with an Old Man in the middle of a rainy circus parking lot. Never a good sign because you automatically expect him to get hit by huge vehicle while his pants fall down as heâ€™s yelling for some kid to get off his lawn when he hasnâ€™t had a lawn since his wife died and his kids put him in an Home for the Nearly Dead. Unless the man is played by Hal Holbrook. The Old Man (played by Hal Holbrook, so weâ€™re okay for now) is looking around wistfully. The circus seems to be stirring up feelings he hasnâ€™t had in a while as heâ€™s blissfully unaware that at his advanced age, pneumonia due to overexposure can be accelerated especially if youâ€™re not wearing any pants.
After waiting about 5 minutes to see if the Old Man is going to die, a kindly circus worker named Charlie (Paul Schneider) takes him out of the rain, gives him hard alcohol to drink, and provides him with some oversized clown pants. Old Man identifies himself as Jacob. He says he went to the circus because his son forgot that it was his day to visit and so he was left alone. Someone in the audience blurted, â€œItâ€™s because he thought you died 4 years ago.â€
Jacob seems to know a lot about the ins and outs of the circus business, forcing Charlie to actually listen to him instead of making the pretend-listen face when old people start rambling on about some inane thing. Charlieâ€™s actually interested… and hopes, really, really hopes, that Jacob is about to go into some flashback that lasts about 2 hours.
Jacob obliges, and itâ€™s onto Extended Flashback Territory we go…
Itâ€™s the 1930s. Weâ€™re hip-deep into the Great Depression. Jacob (now played by Robert Pattinson through the magic of movies) is living with his parents and studying at Cornell to become a veterinarian. If fact, heâ€™s about to take his â€œVet Finalâ€ when he is called urgently out of the testing room.
The Bad News: His parents have been killed in a car accident.
The Good News: His parents have been killed in a car accident, thus providing the audience with what screenwriting books call an â€œinciting incidentâ€ so we can get started into the real story.
It turns out that Jacobâ€™s father owed money to quite a few people so their property is now being sold to cover some of the debt.
Shitty things that have happened to Jacob in the past 5 minutes of screentime:
1) No parents due to death
2) No money due to parentsâ€™ death
3) No house, also due to parents’ death
Now Jacob is amidst a personal great depression amidst the real Great Depression marking the first time Iâ€™ve written â€˜amidstâ€™ twice in one sentence. So whatâ€™s a failed orphan with limited job prospects to do in the midst of the Great Depression? To paraphrase Pulp Fiction, walk amidst the Earth.
After walking for about 3 minutes, Jacobâ€™s delicate little feet become too tired and so he decides to hop a moving train. Unfortunately, heâ€™s caught relatively quickly and is about to get beaten down like a minority motorist when a kindly old man named Camel takes him in.
Jacob has jumped on a train containing The Benzini Brothers traveling circus. Jacob learns that the Benzinis are barely holding on financially while the rival Ringling Bros. rake it in day after day, show after show. When needed, The Benzinis make the necessary budget cuts, in that they donâ€™t pay their workers for weeks or throw them off the train when their services are no longer needed (called â€œredlightingâ€). It should be mentioned that the train is still moving.
Fortunately, Camel finds a job worthy of Jacobâ€™s skills and that job is to shovel animal feces.
While on a break, Jacob notices a beautiful woman and a huge white horse. He notices something wrong with the horse. Before he can make a proper diagnosis, the woman whisks herself away. Most likely because sheâ€™s busy, and not because Jacob smells like animal dung.
It turns out the woman is named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and sheâ€™s the star of the show. She also happens to be the bossâ€™s wife. The Boss happens to be a sadistic man named August (Inglourious Basterdsâ€™ Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz). Jacob is sad that Marlena is into really older guys, because he thought there might be some chemistry there. There were sparks between them, but Marlena has to keep her cards close to the vest because sheâ€™s such a coy little minx.
August meets Jacob. Jacob says something intelligent. August doesnâ€™t like intelligent men working for him and is about to have Jacob officially redlighted when Jacob reveals that heâ€™s a studied veterinary medicine at Cornell. August decides to keep Jacob on as the Benzini vet.
Cool things that have happened to Jacob as a result of his parents getting brutally killed in a car accident.
1) Got a groovy job as a shit-shoveler.
2) Met a hot married woman. Saw the hot married woman topless in a movie called, ironically enough, Twilight (the good one, with Paul Newman and Gene Hackman, and yes, Reese Witherspoon is topless in that movie).
3) Got an even groovier new job as a circus vet, though the shoveling thing is on an as-needed basis.
I know, a Robert Pattinson movie involving a love triangle between Pattinson, another man, and a woman. But you havenâ€™t really been paying attention because youâ€™ve been online looking at topless Reese Witherspoon screencaps. Donâ€™t worry, because this love triangle isnâ€™t unintentionally funny. Donâ€™t worry again, as Christoph Waltz does not spend the majority of the movie with his shirt off or transforming into a fake-looking werewolf.
But we do wonder if Marlena is going to be part of Team August…or Team, um, Jacob. And to make matters even more complicated, thereâ€™s a huge elephant named Rosie involved, but not in some freaky, unhygienic sort of way.
What works with Water for Elephants –
1) Though heâ€™s playing a bad guy, Christoph Waltzâ€™ August is nothing like Hans Landa, as Waltz is now the go-to actor for 3-dimensional villains. Yes, August is an inglorious bastard, but, as played by Waltz, heâ€™s an all too human one. You rarely condone the things he does (animal lovers in particular might cringe), but thereâ€™s rarely a moment when you donâ€™t understand why heâ€™s doing it.
2) Robert Pattinson does a decent job as Jacob. I reiterate this because it feels karmically right after bagging on him for that fake vampire heâ€™s saddled to play.
4) One of the novelâ€™s best scenes between Rosie, a stake, and lemonade is the best moment of the movie. Or at least the one where youâ€™re the most emotionally involved.
What doesnâ€™t work:
1) While I was watching it, I was wondering why the movie wasnâ€™t working as well as it should have considering the principals involved. Only later did I realize that director Francis Lawrence (the weak WillSmithified I Am Legend, the weak KeanuReevesified Constantine) seemed to have been paying more attention to the production design than to the characters. More than once I thought a set or a shot looked beautiful when I should have been paying attention to what was going on between the actors.
2) Reese Witherspoonâ€™s Marlena doesnâ€™t make much of an impression as a character other than an Object of Affection for Jacob and August. Screenwriter Richard LaGravanese maybe forgot that Marlena has to register as a human being to the audience as well. Itâ€™s telling that Rosie the Elephant seems more developed than Marlena.
Overall. An adequate, if somewhat emotionally mute film that may make some viewers wonder why the book was so beloved in the first place. Water for Elephants is recommended, but just barely, and thanks in no small part that your other option this weekend is a Tyler Perry film.