Water for Elephants (2011) / Drama-Romance
MPAA rated violence and sexual content
Running time: 120 min.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Stephen Taylor
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Richard LaGravanese (based on the novel by Sara Gruen)
Told in flashback mode from the conversation of an elderly man (Holbrook, The Majestic) to the year 1931, deep in the era of the Depression and Prohibition, Robert Pattinson (Twilight, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) stars as Jacob Jankowski, a former veterinary student from Cornell who leaves the school following the untimely death of his parents. He ends up penniless and homeless, who joins the traveling Benzini Circus as caretaker for the wade array of exotic animals.
While under the employ of the domineering and sometimes cruel ringmaster and company owner, August (Waltz, The Green Hornet), he meets and falls under the spell of the older gentleman's marquee performer wife, Marlena (Witherspoon, Just Like Heaven). When Marlena's prize horse suffers a fate that sees him put down, August must find a new main act, and happens to come into possession of a talented elephant named Rosie. Unfortunately, life isn't so rosy for the giant animal, as August proves to be a terribly abusive trainer, and nearly as abusive husband, which puts Jacob in jeopardy when he comes to the defense of both.
Richard LaGravanese (P.S. I Love You, Freedom Writers) adapts the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen, slickly directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine), helped immensely by the sumptuous cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (State of Play, Babel) and lush score by James Newton Howard (The Tourist, The Dark Knight). The romance itself isn't terribly special for fans not enraptured by the attractiveness of the two leads, who aren't exactly a sizzling on-screen pairing, but the story is well developed, and the pacing by Lawrence keeps the plot moving along in good order. The setting is also a plus, as are the costumes by Jacqueline West (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Invasion) and set design by Kristen Davis (Fast & Furious, Get Smart Bruce & Lloyd Out of Control), as well as some truly impressive animals on display.
The scenes of the mistreatment of the animals are tough to watch, even though much of it takes place off screen, but it does call into mind the reason why many circuses, including Circus Vargas today, no longer feature animals as part of their acts. Waltz is effectively menacing when in cruel mode, and does show some sensitivity at times when he realizes he's gone too far, though there is still the problem that this love triangle lacks the electricity that a glossy romance could benefit from (one wonders how August can sense the sizzling romance brewing under the surface between wife and new hire when we can't).
Perhaps a little more grit and a little less gloss would have given the story the edge it needed to be something more than romanticized pretty pictures and music. The emotional impact is muted, save for the plight of Rosie, who is about the only character in the film one can truly have sympathy with. Still, it remains a film that is easy on the eyes, if not entirely tugging successfully at the heartstrings.
Side trivia: both of the main actors were unrelatedly featured in films called Twilight.
©2012 Vince Leo