Friday, April 22, 2011

Water for Elephants: Medium-top melodrama

Water for Elephants (2011) • View trailer for Water for Elephants
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.22.11

Acting flavors of the month shouldn't be allowed anywhere near prestige projects.

The newbie's presence inevitably affects atmosphere and tone, and sometimes story elements are modified — or compromised — according to this fresh young talent's strengths ... or limitations.
When August (Christoph Waltz, left) begins to suspect that his wife, Mariena
(Reese Witherspoon), and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) have become more than
troupe acquaintances, he orchestrates a cruel charade and orders them to
participate; we nervously eye this uncomfortable game, while also wondering
why the circus owner has insisted on the presence of Rosie, the company's
new elephant star.

Robert Pattinson's most visible problem is an acting range that stretches most of the way from A to B. He delivers tortured angst quite well, having had plenty of practice as the sparkly vampire love interest in the Twilight series. The trouble is, Pattinson's apparent takes on more cheerful emotions — happiness, satisfaction, love — still look very much like ... well, tortured angst.

He's therefore quite credible here while pining for Reese Witherspoon, or one of the most personable elephants ever captured on camera ... although it looks very much like the way he pines for Kristin Stewart's Bella, in the Twilight movies.

When things go his character's way in Water for Elephants, though ... well, it's difficult to tell the difference.

In a nutshell, both Witherspoon and supporting actor Christoph Waltz act circles around Pattinson. They're so far superior that he all but vanishes from the screen: rather awkward, given that his character is this story's protagonist. Heck, Mark Povinelli, in a minor role as a dwarf circus clown named Kinko, is more credible — and gives us a better sense of his character — than Pattinson.

In most other respects, director Francis Lawrence delivers a respectable adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-selling novel, thanks in great part to a thoughtful, well-constructed screenplay from Richard LaGravanese (who also adapted The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer, among his numerous other credits). He has, of necessity, condensed many of the events from Gruen's dense Depression-era saga; he and Lawrence also have made the story far more viewer-friendly, toning down both the period squalor and often shocking animal cruelty, as befits a gentler PG-13 rating.

So while this film affords a reasonable glimpse of the hard-scrabble conditions found within a third-rated Depression-era traveling circus, the cruelty and sadism displayed by numerous characters in Gruen's book have been condensed into a single, supremely malevolent figure: Waltz's August, owner/manager of the Benzini Brothers Circus ("the most spec-ta-cu-lar show on Earth!").

But his introduction comes later. We first meet Jacob (Hal Holbrook) in the present day: an old-timer disgusted with life in a nursing home, who has wandered off to visit a nearby circus. Jacob winds up recounting his youthful days to an interested listener, and thus we're whisked back to the 1930s, as a polished and confident veterinary medicine student (now played by Pattinson) prepares to take the test that will confer his degree. But the exam is interrupted by a crisis: Jacob's two loving parents have been killed in a road accident. The young man subsequently learns that he's penniless, his parents having converted their house and business into cash, in order to fund their only child's education.

Bereft and adrift, Jacob hits the road, unable to return to the life and career that had been so carefully planned.

(One would think, given the nature of Jacob's devotion to his mother and father, that he'd honor their memory by taking the damn exam and hanging up his vet-med shingle. But then, of course, we wouldn't have a story...)

When Jacob subsequently hops a freight, he happens to pick one of the cars belonging to the Benzini Brothers circus, bound for its next town and performance. He's "adopted" by Camel (Jim Norton), an old roustabout who assigns the young man various unpalatable jobs, in exchange for food and shelter. Eventually, though, Jacob must be taken before the boss, August, an unexpectedly refined "gentleman" who orders the newcomer tossed off the train.

Desperate, Jacob cites his professional training — omitting the key detail regarding his lack of a diploma — and mentions his concerns about one of the gorgeous stallions in the circus horse act. Intrigued, August changes his mind and accepts the young man, certain that having his own circus vet would be an advantage over his hated rival, Ringling Bros.

The situation with the horse proceeds not quite according to plan, but along the way Jacob notices — and is noticed by — Mariena (Witherspoon), both the circus' "star attraction," as the leader and rider of the horses, and as August's wife. Romantic sparks smolder, flicker into life, and we anticipate Trouble Down The Line.

To be more accurate, said romantic sparks ignite on Witherspoon's end, her husky sensuality radiating from the screen, particularly when cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto frames her in tight close-up. Pattinson does his best, but he simply hasn't the acting chops to convey the necessary blend of awakening desire, youthful recklessness and self-preservational wariness.

By day, Jacob's training and natural compassion immediately clash with August's hard-scrabble pragmatism, particularly when it comes to the care of the circus animals. August thinks nothing of feeding his big cats pails of rancid fish, rather than fresh meat; the former is cheaper. Similarly, August insists that an injured animal continue to perform until it drops, at which point it'll be killed ... and then chopped up into dinner for the rest of the menagerie. Nothing and nobody get mollycoddled; nothing goes to waste.

We might forgive August's ruthless nature as a realistic reflection of the times, were it not for the gleam of psychopathic instability present in Waltz's eyes. As the actor did so well with his Academy Award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz unerringly walks a fine line between disarming courtliness and refined intelligence, and hair-trigger viciousness. He's a passive/aggressive monster, pure and simple. Jacob senses this on one level, but never sufficiently; he's much too willing to be persuaded anew, each time, that August flies into these frenzies only when he gets desperate about mounting expenses and shrinking income.

Witherspoon's Mariena is similarly complicated, albeit more subtly. At first little more than the iconic presence that Jacob imagines her to be, this young woman gradually reveals her own wealth of insecurities. Mariena is no less desperate or unhappy than anybody else; she merely puts on a good show, because it's part of the act. And the first time we see her calm August, bringing him down from a building rage ("I'm ... right ... here"), it feels like wifely care and concern. Only later do we realize that it's mostly self-preservation; when consumed by his violent fits, August's potential targets are indiscriminate.

Witherspoon has the greatest challenge here, because Mariena is the only character faced with a choice, and given the opportunity to mature; Jacob and August, as the good and evil lures at opposite ends of the tent, never change.

This three-way dynamic quickly becomes unstable, because August — delighted to have college-educated company — constantly insists that Jacob share dinner, music and dancing soirees in the private carriage where he lives with his wife. Naturally, this throws Jacob and Mariena together all the more, stoking the fires of passion while building the tension in our own minds: Could they be this stupid, this careless?

Then the situation changes — gets even worse — when August purchases an elephant, hoping to juice up box office sales.

We cringe at the very thought, knowing that this gentle, magnificent creature will become a new target for August's unpredictable wrath. And that's on top of what we already know about unmonitored circus life of this era, when nobody gave a second thought to "controlling" an elephant with a nasty implement known as a bull hook. All this is bad enough, but it becomes even worse because, from the very beginning, Rosie is a most personable and intelligent elephant.

Gruen's book is laced with numerous magical scenes, good and bad; Lawrence's film has only one, but it's a charmer. It's also one of the movie's quietest moments, and therefore draws its power from this very peacefulness. Jacob, having befriended this mighty newcomer, is spending time with her one morning; Rosie spots a vat of lemonade at the edge of the tent, well beyond her reach. Using her trunk, she yanks out the metal stake to which her chain is tethered, and walks across the tent in order to guzzle the beverage. Then, her thirst quenched, she returns to her original spot ... and replaces the stake.

For once, Pattinson's response is perfect, and of course it mirrors our own. From that moment, the certain knowledge of what's coming frightens the hell out of us.

Lawrence is similarly deft with an early montage that shows how a circus is built, from the ground up, each time its train rolls into a new town; the process centers around the set-up of the big tent, a crowd-pleasing process that also bears the symbolic, community-spirited weight of a barn-raising. And if this film doesn't quite duplicate the total immersion we get within Gruen's book — of both circus lore and life, and Depression-era desperation — chalk it up to perception on the part of both Lawrence and LaGravanese. Putting all the sordid details onto the screen would result in a movie that nobody could watch. Dickensian-grade cruelty can be managed on the printed page, when we can pause to digest before returning to fresh horrors; a film's progress is unrelenting.

I therefore suspect that this book's fans may be dissatisfied by what will feel like a slightly sanitized, Readers Digest compression of events. Those unfamiliar with Gruen's book won't have that reaction; Lawrence and LaGravanese deliver a solid narrative with a satisfying beginning and end that bookend time well spent with compelling protagonists and often fascinating side folks.

Perhaps a little too fascinating; Pattinson's Jacob too often is overshadowed by lesser characters. Heck, even Kinko's dog is more interesting. And displays a lot more personality.

This big-screen Water for Elephants is a reasonably acceptable melodrama, and it'll certainly tug all the appropriate heartstrings at all the expected moments. But it falls short of greatness due to the limitations of its young male lead; we can only imagine how much better Lawrence's film would be, with an actor who could match Witherspoon and Waltz's intensity.

That truly would be circus magic.


  1. Curious--do you read all the books if you know that you have a book-to-movie coming up? Fortunately, I don't remember the book all that well (I listened to it as an audio book), but I remember being LIVID at what Barbra Streisand did to one of my favorite books, "Prince of Tides."

    I'm looking forward to this but sad to learn that audiences won't learn about the cruelty to circus animals.

  2. If I'm reasonably certain that I'll be reviewing a film based on an existing novel -- and there's sufficient time -- then yes, I do try to read the books. It adds an important layer to the review, although I'll also insist that a film needs to stand on its own, regardless of its fidelity to the existing novel. And while this film somewhat mutes the greater horrors of cruelty to circus animals in the 1930s, there's still enough to get the message across.

  3. Saw the movie, finally. Waltz was absolutely mesmerizing. Hated him, of course, but his performances was wonderful.