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Review: Water For Elephants

He almost can't believe she's real. The young veterinarian Jacob (Robert Pattinson) confesses this to the audience in voiceover, as we stare through his eyes at Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) reclining across her ailing horse. (He's talking about Marlena but that horse is a vision, too.) Marlena's equine slumber is the strangely serene finale to what is otherwise a typically busy circus act. In Jacob's defense, she is quite a vision; Reese's hair is nearly Harlow blonde, her innate starpower reflects as much light as her shimmery costume, and the horse ain't bad either. Marlena is almost musical, really, riding into the tent on the ripple of black and white stallions. It almost makes you wish that Water For Elephants were a musical. It thrives on these heightened moments, the ones that feel half imagined rather than remembered, and both musicals and epic period romances, a related endangered species, need these to induce the swooning.

Water for Elephants is adapted from the bestseller of the same name which introduces us to a nursing home escapee Jacob who tells a stranger in the circus business his life story. He ran away to the circus when tragedy struck and signed on as their vet, quickly proving indispensable. Naturally the young ivy league dropout falls for the star performer (Marlena) who is stuck in an abusive relationship with her older ringmaster husband. A new addition to the circus, an elephant named Rosie, strains their already tense triangular working relationship.

The unmistakable mistake within the the adaptation by Richard Lagravenese is its timidity. It's almost as if the screenwriter and possibly the director were afraid of breaking the spell that the #1 bestseller had on its audience. It's frustrating really that they were so shy. "Water For Elephants" in literary form, wasn't anything like a masterpiece to coax gingerly with reverence toward the screen. What it had going for it was the incredible images it conjured up; as books go it was practically already a movie. It needed a team that would corral it from big top to big screen with a merciless showman's precision, tossing its less wieldly bits off the train at the first opportunity. It needed to be an August rather than a Jacob. Take the framing device, for instance. It's awkward but enough in the book but justifies its presence somewhat with a good deal of meatiness. Truncated to screen form it's virtually character-free, the definition of inelegant structure. Why not toss it out altogether? (Sorry Hal Holbrook and Paul Schneider but you didn't have characters to play anyway!). Young Jacob's opening act tragedy is also entirely mangled by truncation. Few things are less interesting than waiting for a movie to get where you know it's going and few things are more exciting than entering a movie mid scene and running to catch up. Better to have kicked off with a despondent young man hopping aboard a moving train. Who is he? Why is someone this well educated and richly dressed acting like a hobo? Let key dialogue moments but mostly the skill of the actors (you hired pricey ones) suggest the back story. With best sellers the audience will fill in more than you should ever tell.

Still, the movie version has a few moments just as magical as Marlena's horse act most of them springing from the colorful alien milieu. The 1930 traveling circus is very well executed by the A list production team including production designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood), costume designer Jacqueline West (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain). On occasion the performances get to be the show, courtesy mostly of Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). His blazingly confident command of the camera is impossible to miss as are his efforts to elevate the archetypal Svengali character, by leaning hard into August's vulnerable moments, the aftermath of his rage or control. A fine pachyderm actor by the name of Tai is also wonderful as "Rosie".

Water For Elephants is smart enough to understand that it's closer to a romantic quadrangle (3/4ths human, 1/4th other) than a typical romantic epic. It wouldn't work without the aggressive push of August or the mysterious pull of Rosie but the young lovers are still crucial. In some ways Pattinson, a far more limited actor than Witherspoon, is better at the romantic grand gesture of this particular vehicle because he's not at all strong with specificity. (Though to be fair the book had this problem too, Jacob refusing to prove as dimensional as the supporting players.) Perhaps it's the cost of being the storyteller? Witherspoon acquits herself well, reminding us why she's a star, but her relationship with Waltz is so ably defined by both actors and involves more tenderness than you might expect from a movie portrayal of an abusive marriage so her turn towards her young savior feels slightly unfocused; It's arguably a sketch where bold romantic strokes might have helped. But in both the circus and at the movies, eye candy is the star attraction. Jacob and Marlena look great together in their romantic clinches, all sharp angled faces struggling to make room for soft feeling.


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Reader Comments (20)

Awesome review! I can't wait to see this movie! I'll probably enjoy it more than most viewers will, because I have the advantage of never having read the book, so my expectations are comfortably low!

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFilm Conqueror

I haven't read the book and found this one to be a wonderfully pleasant surprise! I agree that the movie thrives in the big moments and that the parts with old Jacob were wholly unnecessary. Totally a sucker for the old swoony romance genre.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDrewB

Your grade was very generous. Definitely a C or C- for me. Witherspooon was great to look at (sometimes) but her cringe worthy line readings ruined the film. Actually let me add that the three main leads were all miscast.

I blame the script for the main problems in the film but I'm also sure that had I read the script I would have thought it was better than seeing it in theaters. A missed opportunity for me.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike B.

it's said that the story of the movie is good
and i would like to see it in theater

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commentererric

eh, I'd give it a C. But i totally agree with your comments on Waltz who practically saved the movie for me.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Steinke

Drew -- yeah. me too. we all have our genres we're more drawn to.

Mike -- but you didn't enjoy the spectacle of it at all? i know the grade was generous. it's a B- for me. i've lately been doing this double grade thing in case i change my mind. hee. but when i've settled on a grade i should stick with it.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Ryan -- maybe he unbalances it a bit though, right? since he's digging into the character and you're still wondering WHO Jacob is. I hope they let Christoph do some non villain roles soon. I want to see what else he can do.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

So many people cried at the end in my theater...that hasn't happened in a long time. I just love that it had a the ending it did--it was beautiful. Very Titanic-esque...

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I hate to be that guy, but it's Robert PattiNson, with two N's.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

The worst possible mistake this movie made was hiring Witherspoon for the role of Marlena. It's one of the worst casting calls of recent memory for book adaptations.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle

(Some mild spoilers for the end:)

I didn't think this was all that great, which is to be expected from such slavish devotion to a book best read on an airplane), but it worked on the audience pretty well. Rosie's big moment with August at the climax got sustained cheers and applause, making up for the fact that the movie logically had to sacrifice the one thing I really thought was clever on the page -- the misdirection about who committed the murder.

I also thought the final"home movie" reel was a nice touch.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoel

Joel -- i liked that home movie thing too. i just don't understand the framing structure at all though. SO clumsy.

Danielle -- which brings the question of who do you think should have played her?

April 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This is a terrific passage:

"Few things are less interesting than waiting for a movie to get where you know it's going and few things are more exciting than entering a movie mid scene and running to catch up. Better to have kicked off with a despondent young man hopping aboard a moving train. Who is he? Why is someone this well educated and richly dressed acting like a hobo? Let key dialogue moments but mostly the skill of the actors (you hired pricey ones) suggest the back story. With best sellers the audience will fill in more than you should ever tell."

Alas, I hated this movie.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurtisO

Nathaniel: Eva Green would have been *perfect* - sexy, enigmatic, mysterious are qualities that she just exudes so naturally.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle

i loved this book but when i think about the movie's leads, all I see is a triangle of weird chins.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

I read the book AND I saw the movie. I'd give the book a B, and the movie a B- too. The framing device was much bigger in the book so I can see why they kept it, but Hal Holbrook does NOT seem like the person Robert Pattinson would grow into.

I also think that Reese was miscast, but alas, she is the one who got it made in the first place, so you take what you can get. I'm trying to think if there is any name actress as big as her who could have played it "better." Maybe Charlize Theron? But then Reese is a bigger star so I still don't know. Marlena is supposed to seem exotic and even with a Harlow makeover, Reese is not exotic in the least.

Christoph Waltz was definitely the best thing in it (other than the production design and cinematography). I really wish they had played up the almost seduction that August imposed on Jacob. It would have fired up the love triangle and made Jacob more conflicted, and therefore a better match for brooding (and not much else) Pattinson.

Oh, and this is the first time I've ever seen Robert Pattinson in anything besides Harry Potter, and I have to say the camera loves him. All those angles, and the broken nose and everything. He could be a star if he could get control of his voice and his power.

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Dave -- it's so funny how important voice is for mastering a visual medium but it's true. though i do think they played up the triangular feeling well -- i mean there were a couple of odd moments where i thought they were going to push it harder make it a Cabaret sexy threesome ;)

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

If they had gone for the Cabaret sexy threesome, they might have had a classic on their hands. It wouldn't have strayed that far from the book and would, perhaps unfortunately, gotten the audience to hate August even more.

Generally the movie eliminated any ambiguities, but that's pretty much par for the course for movies these days.

Oh, and one more thing, I thought the movie actually looked pretty "rich" considering it was made for only 40 or 50 million. I think that's what these "serious" movies will be required to do, i.e. get cheaper or get lost.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Very insightful review. I watched this movie yesterday and truly enjoyed it.Robert Pattinson does a superb job.

your review definitely gonna help me to decide whether i should watch this movie or not

April 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterseo tools
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