Review: Water For Elephants
PLOT: When his parents are killed in a hit-and-run, a depression-era veterinary student; Jacob (Robert Pattinson) hits the road, and falls in with a traveling circus, lorded over by a sadistic maestro; August (Christoph Waltz). He becomes the de facto veterinarian for the new star attraction, an elephant named Rosie, but his position is threatened by his growing love for a beautiful performer named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who happens to be August’s wife.
REVIEW : WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is not a film I expected much from. Robert Pattinson’s last non-TWILIGHT-movie, REMEMBER ME is without a doubt one of the worst film’s I’ve seen in the last year, and I wasn’t all that eager to watch him headline another film. As for co-star Reese Witherspoon, I loved her in WALK THE LINE, but she hasn’t done much for me since then. I also can’t say I’m too much of a fan of director Francis Lawrence, with CONSTANTINE being an OK film, but I AM LEGEND mostly a mess. I’ve also heard he had a hand in JONAH HEX, about which, the less said the better. I fully expected this to be a disaster.
Luckily, my gut was wrong, and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS ended up being a very pleasant surprise. I haven’t read the best-seller this was based on, but I’m sure, considering the intriguing story the film tells, that it must have been one hell of a read. I’m a big fan of old-Hollywood films, especially stuff made during the era this depicts, and it was nice to see a big-budget Hollywood film that was free of CGI and explosions, and actually told a good love story, as it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a romance that wasn’t cookie-cutter.
It’s a loving made, old-fashioned film, similar to recent period films like SEABISCUIT and THE NOTEBOOK, and I found myself getting quite invested in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS over the two-hour running time, which whizzed by. That said, I still found it a frustrating film, as there were a few things about it that bugged me.
One was Robert Pattinson. You could accuse me of being prejudiced against him, but once I started getting in to WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, I really wanted to like him in the role. He’s actually fairly good, and all of the James Dean-wannabe posing from REMEMBER ME is gone, with this being a disciplined performance. My problem is just that, despite his best efforts, he can’t help but be bland. Maybe in a few years, and after a couple more good roles, Pattinson will evolve into a more interesting actor, but he’s a boy in a role that really needed a man. There are a lot of other actors his age that I think could have pulled off the role a lot better. Someone like Andrew Garfield, or Emile Hirsch (both of whom were apparently considered for the role) could have really brought something special to this.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Pattinson is pitted against Hal Holbrook, who plays the older version of his character in the bookend sequences. From the second you lay your eyes on the eighty-six year old Holbrook, who plays Jacob as a sweet, broken-hearted old-man, you won’t be able to stop comparing him to Pattinson. Sadly, Pattinson’s just not up to the task. Holbrook’s still such a damn good actor, and I wish he had more screen time. I’ve always believed that, if he hadn’t been nominated opposite Javier Bardem back in 2007, he would have deservedly won the Oscar for his brilliant turn in INTO THE WILD.
Another problem is Christoph Waltz. I loved him in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, but apparently, so did the producers, as he’s seemingly been told to just play the same character in this. As a result, the film comes off a bit like “Hans Landa: The Circus Years” and he doesn’t disappear into the role like he should. Another issue is that he’s so damn menacing, and clearly sadistic, that you’ll never for a second buy him as the type of guy that could manage a circus, much less go more than five minutes without killing someone. He’s so deliriously evil here that I half expected him to tie Reese Witherspoon to the railroad tracks at one point, and try to run her over with the train.
Luckily, Witherspoon comes off a lot better than her co-stars did, and she’s terrific as the object of both Pattinson and Waltz’ affections, although- the chemistry between her an Pattinson is somewhat lacking.
My problems with the casting aside, I still really enjoyed WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, mostly for the wonderful story, the gorgeous cinematography and production design, and the lovely musical score by James Newton Howard. I also liked the people that make up some of Pattinson’s circus pals, especially Jim Norton as the old-timer that takes our young protagonist under his wing. My fellow DAWN OF THE DEAD geeks will also be amused to see the one-and-only Ken Foree (whose seeming put on a pound of muscle for each of the thirty-three years since Romero’s masterpiece) as Waltz’ morally conflicted henchman who helps his boss “red-light” (throw off of a moving train) old performers that no longer cut it.
Overall, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS may be a flawed and somewhat inconsistent film, but damn if I didn’t enjoy it a heck of a lot more than I thought I would. It’s certainly a huge step up for director Lawrence, and an interesting departure from the sci-fi action genre he’s been pigeonholed in. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a good, solid film that tells a likable, moving story, and it’s well worth checking out.
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