Water for Elephants
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Schneider, Hal Holbrook
Release Date: April 22, 2011
Ask somebody of yesteryear about a circus (because rarely do people attend circuses nowadays) and you’re inclined to get a favorable answer and probably be subjected to many stories recollecting their happiness such an event gave to them. This perspective of the ever-popular big top productions of the early 20th century, promising incomprehensible acts of wonder and merriment, usually comes from members of the audience sitting in awe at the wide-eyed spectacle that unfolds before them. But little are they aware of the events that unravel behind the scenes, such as a ringmaster’s wife being wooed by the circus’ veterinarian. Spectators of circuses are disconnected from all that occurs when elephants, lions, acrobats and horses aren’t dazzling them with their tricks and poetic beauty. But like what David Lynch once taught us in Mulholland Dr.: all is an illusion.
In contemporary times, an old man (played pitch perfectly by Hal Holbrook) hobbling with a cane has escaped a nursing home. He finds himself in pouring rain outside of a circus. Suddenly he comes to a halt and begins to admire the place, maybe looking for lost memories that have passed him by. We learn that he was part the Benzini Brothers circus back in 1931. But maybe that was an illusion, being it was such a long time ago. The owner of the circus (Paul Schneider) who finds this old man is soon given a history lesson regarding the 1931 Benzini circus. Water for Elephants then follows the old man’s story, a guaranteed tear-inducing technique reminiscent of Titanic and The Notebook.
The old man was once a student on the verge of graduation at Cornell University until grave news informed him that his parents have died in a car accident. His name is Jacob (a radiant Robert Pattinson) and a fine veterinarian he is. Being it 1931 America is still trying to adapt to the blows The Great Depression dealt out. Having no family left and no money to own his home, Jacob rashly decides to abandon his final semester and embark on a journey to wherever the wind takes him. Luck guides him to a train in which he hops. It is a train belonging to a traveling circus, The Benzini Brothers. He gets a paid job as the circus’ vet. Many roustabouts, delinquents, and loners looking for the smallest pay make up this circus, which is run in a dictator fashion by the maniacal August (Christoph Waltz).
Waltz, proving his acting in Inglorious Basterds was no fluke, shows August as a disdainful multifaceted ringmaster with sick and desperate intentions. These are the dark and corrupt purposes spectators of the circus never see. The illusion of grandeur and magnificence is a veneer that once stripped reveals the ugliness of mankind. Trying to maintain a profitable circus August needs to be frugal and smart with how he handles his money. Sometimes, with the help of his many bodyguards/helpers, he tosses incapable and burdensome men out of a moving train in order to save money and has the tendency to severely mistreat his animals. Jacob isn’t in accordance with his cruelty. August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) looks on helplessly, trying to figure out why she married this man who uses her as his star-attraction with horses and a giant elephant named Rosie. She begins to take a liking to Jacob to relieve her pains. All is not well at the Benzini circus.
Water for Elephants, a recent New York Times best selling novel penned by Sara Gruen, is already slightly marinated in the timeworn sadness and sorrow that second-rate romances tend to adhere to. The book doesn’t blatantly hit us over the head with sappy drama, it coasts its way through its material perceptible of when the right time it is to emotionally drill us, whereas the film version, adapted by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), doesn’t locate the book’s acknowledgment of moderation. Lawrence doesn’t render his film totally melodramatic. It ceases to irritate us completely with its sappy tone. The vivid recreation of the variety a circus can offer is accomplished with flying colors, furthering our realization from the entanglements a mediocre script depends on.
But the appreciated attention to detail doesn’t mean we don’t quarrel with the things that are deliberately pedestrian. The pulsating music by James Newton Howard is there for added effect, as well as the continual rollercoaster ride the movie takes us on, experiencing the undulating movements the circus endures and encompassing the many highs and lows multiple times over. But the visions of the circus enchant irresistibly, and for this atmosphere that hardly gets attention we are appreciative of the conviction of which it is shown.
Rating: *** out of *****