April 25, 2011

Movie Review: Water for Elephants

As I sat in the dark somewhat enjoying Water for Elephants, I realized that I could sum up Robert Pattinson's career with a clip from Disney's animated Tangled. Now, if you recall, there is a moment where the hero says "Prepare for the smolder." and looks up, lips pursed, eyes squinted in a supposed sexy gaze. That, right there is a pretty good approximation of what he has accomplished thus far. All right, before you get all crazy, I admit to being a Twilight hater; however, I am not willing to write off any of the cast until they are able to do some work away from that franchise and prove one way or the other their actual ability (you cannot blame them for anything other than taking a gig to get their careers going). I think Pattinson could be a decent actor, but need to see him try some more stuff.

In any case, he does a decent job here, even if his accent comes across as a little uneven and his chemistry with Reese Witherspoon is a bit lacking. For what it is, Water for Elephants is a modestly entertaining period/drama/romance that flirts with the Great Depression, gives a look at where circuses were at the time, and a little personal conflict as a three-sided romance develops.

Water for Elephants is told in flashback by an aged man named Jacob (Hal Holbrook). He looks a little lost standing in front of a circus as rain pours down. A couple of the circus workers take him inside where he relates the story of the Benzini Bros. Circus and its climactic downfall in 1931. The flashback takes us back to Jacob as a young Cornell University veterinary student. A family tragedy sets him out on the road to find a new life, and with the Great Depression settled in across the country there was no telling where that may take him.

His walking leads to the rails where he jumps a train. The train happens to be for the Benzini Bros. circus and he is able to use his near graduation as a chip to gain some work. The conflict is entertained by his attraction to the traveling show's star attraction, bareback rider Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). The problem is that she is also married to the show's runner, August (Christoph Waltz).

I am sure you can tell how the conflict path will run and how it is going to turn out. Even without reading the book it is pretty easy to predict how the romance is going to flow, meaning this movie needs to succeed in its execution. For the most part, I am happy to say that it does.

Water for Elephants is not a great film by a long stretch, but it does come across as a fairly accurate representation of the time period. I think it is safe to say that circuses are not nearly as popular as the once were, what with rampant animal abuse that seems to routinely be reported about their treatment of the animals in he show. This is not necessarily going to change that perception, but it may give you a slightly different perspective on where it began.

I liked the circus elements, showing how they would work the crowd and try to maximize profits. I enjoyed  the talk about how the acts came together and the scavenging for acts from the ashes of failed shows. The separation of the groups within the circus hierarchy was interesting. Seriously, aside from the romance (which I could not buy into) I thought it was pretty good. It was part of a love story for the old timey circuses and traveling shows, a bygone era that has been replaced with celebrity dance shows, singing competitions, and talent contests on primetime television.

While some of the story worked for me, the same can be said for the performances, some good and some bad. Pattinson was in smolder mode playing up the melodrama, which was fine but nothing terribly spectacular. Reese Witherspoon is all right, but she is overshadowed by the smolder and Christoph Waltz. Speaking Waltz, he was one of the bright spots amongst the performances. His hot/cold, possibly schizophrenic August was electrifying. He could go from charismatic to terrifying in seconds. Sure, it is a little similar to his Inglourious Basterds role but he is so good at it. Then there is Hal Holbrook, if there is any emotion to be wrung from this movie it is with him. His opening and closing segments were just fantastic and he was the only reason I felt even remotely invested on an emotional level.

I cannot say I didn't like the movie, but it was also far from a love affair. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) gives it a nice, bright sheen and keeps the pace well. It is always interesting to look at with the bright colors and such. Not to mention the scenes with the elephant are pretty great (particularly the final circus sequence).

Bottomline. Mostly fun and enjoyable, the movie ends up feeling a little inconsequential. I am glad I saw it and it was great seeing Ken Foree was pretty awesome. Waltz and Holbrook were fantastic but I doubt I will revisit this again for a long time.

Mildly Recommended.

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