Water For Elephants

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a film so close to greatness that it’s almost painful to watch.  Each skillfully crafted circus performance, each breathtakingly beautiful setting, each genuinely romantic moment and every tear-jerking plot twist led us closer and closer to cinematic brilliance, only to let us down with a disappointing thud.  This film has all the right ingredients, but it just couldn’t put them together to make a film that audiences will remember.

Robert Pattinson in Water For Elephants

Told via an unnecessary flashback (ala SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), we meet up with an elder man recounting his life story to a young circus manager.  That hurdles the audience back to 1931, where a young veterinarian student named Jacob (Robert Pattinson) suffers a dramatic tragedy and finds himself a stowaway on a circus railcar.  After suffering through a series of remedial jobs, the show’s manager, August (Christoph Waltz) appoints him the veterinarian to the show’s animals.  This is how Jacob meets Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the beautiful star of the circus and August’s wife.  Of course, a love triangle ensues, culminating in a somewhat over-the-top ending.

Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in Water For Elephants

Kudos has to be given to Christoph Waltz, who stood head and shoulders above everyone else with another sinister performance.  Unfortunately for Mr. Waltz, his character was held back from ever reaching the point of true villainy.  No, he didn’t show any remorse for a wounded animal and yes, he did beat another, but the evilness that the audience needed to see in him was never there.  This is where screenwriter Richard LaGravenese struggled throughout the film; following through with the characters he created.  I appreciated LaGravenese adding another dimension to August by pointing out the difficulty of the times and his undying love for Marlena, but it was important to the story that the audience hate him with a passion. The same problem was persistent in Marlena, who was hopelessly devoted to August, even after he beat the animals she loved and (presumably) was cruel to her.  She was a character whose development seemed to come from other people talking about her rather than her own actions.  Of course, it didn’t help matters that she had some really tough (and cheesy) dialogue to deliver.

Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in Water For Elephants

As for Robert Pattinson, I don’t think this is the definitive post-Twilight film fans were hoping to point to as proof of his staying power.  He showed flashes of greatness, but too often fell back on his Edward persona (squinting, brooding, pouty) when the scenes got difficult.  George Clooney did this early in his film career as well, constantly falling back on Dr. Green (from his E.R. days) by concentrating really hard, holding his head down and looking up when he didn’t know how else to act.  So I have faith that Pattinson can improve and although he gave an adequate performance in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, he lacked the charisma and charm his fans seemed convinced he has.

Christoph Waltz in Water For Elephants

I did enjoy the grandness of Elephants, which was a nice throwback to the days of non-CGI and over-blown stunts.  Director Francis Lawrence told the story very well, but with the material at hand and the actors in the film, I felt he let a good opportunity for greatness slip away.  Elephants is a film I can safely recommend as a good film, but not one I’d count amongst the best.


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