(Trunk of slighty burnin’ love.)
Starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. Directed by Francis Lawrence. 121 minutes. PG
There’s something remarkably cinematic about a Depression-era circus. The carnival workers brought magic and make-believe to one of the realist eras in history, delighting and reigniting passion in a generation of children forced to grow up too fast.
Seeing as Water for Elephants attempts to recreate this notoriously tough time under the big top of Hollywood glitz and glamour, you would think it would be a pitch-perfect weekday getaway. After all, the book it’s based on (written by Canadian Sara Gruen) was a headline act for bookworms, heralded for its perfect mix of fantastical romanticism and realism. Unfortunately, this adaptation comes across more like a well-worn middle-of-show magic act. It’s definitely enjoyable, but oh-so-easy to see through.
Water for Elephants is essentially a non-musical Moulin Rouge! on the set in the middle of Big Fish. The drama follows a young man named Jacob (played confusingly by the tween heartthrob best known for playing a vampire/werewolf-named-Jacob hater, Robert Pattinson) who drops out of veterinarian school after his parents perish in a car accident. With no saving to speak of, Jacob is forced out of his childhood cottage and onto lonesome dusty road. But not for long.
Soon after leaving home, Jacob stumbles upon an travelling circus and immediately falls in love—first with the animals (lions and giraffes and elephants, oh my!) and then with the star attraction, a beautiful horse whisperer/acrobat, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). The problem is, Marlena is married to his boss, a charismatic but creepily controlling (and animal-abusing!) man named August (Oscar winner Christoph Waltz). And August has no problem throwing non-obedient employees off the train. Literally.
The story isn’t particularly surprising or captivating, but Water for Elephants will win you over with visuals. The sets are gorgeous, filled with deep reds and slightly tarnished golds, a clear metaphor for the circus itself, which is struggling to maintain its sheen against the powerhouse that was (and still is) Ringling Brothers. And the costumes are a spectacle in themselves. Reese sparkles in her bedazzled one-pieces, headdresses and a pretty convincing flapper-girl wig.
The acting is also quite decent. Waltz makes for another bombastic basterd, er, bastard—a Colonel Landa lite, if you will. Witherspoon looks and acts lovely, as usual. And while it may not be easy for Twihards to imagine Edward Cullen growing up (let alone to growing up to look like Hal Holbrook), Pattinson pulls off the warmness of a non-vamp quite well. He even manages to fake a fairly decent American accent (for once). If only his relationship with Witherspoon was as believable.
Perhaps it’s the age difference or just her innate lack of Kristen Stewart-ness, but Pattinson doesn’t come across that attracted to his on-screen lover. You could analyze their love scenes or half-baked glances to excess, but the elephant in the room is ultimately, well, the elephant in the room. Pattinson’s scenes with the August’s other prize possession, an elephant named Rosie, are the movie’s true love story. It’s never formally discussed but Rob’s perma-grin and longing looks suggest that he and his character may very well have imprinted on the pretty pachyderm.
Water for Elephants isn’t the greatest show, or movie for that matter, on earth. But it’s definitely not the worst either. Go in with an open mind, some tissues and a bargain bucket of corn and prepare to be semi-amazed. B