Under a big top stuffed with clownish villainy and death-defying romance and a menagerie of beasts human or otherwise, Water for Elephants is quite the three-ring circus of a flick. When the tent folds and the dust settles, the question is not whether the movie is good - sorry, not a chance - but whether it's garish enough, sappy enough, Hollywood enough to rise to the level of being likeably bad. Is it, in short, a guilty pleasure? Answer forthcoming.
For those unfamiliar with best-seller lists, the source is Sara Gruen's operatic novel, although screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has conflated a couple of key characters while still mimicking the book's methods - mounting the story as an extended flashback inside a present-day frame, complete with an aged narrator to kick-start the reminiscence. Now LaGravenese's talents are highly valued in certain circles, the ones with a reverence for the likes of The Horse Whisperer and The Bridges of Madison County. Those same circles will likely be untroubled by that fact that his structure robs the yarn of some suspense - our hero's fate is known from the outset - even as it promises a climactic "disaster" of historic proportions. Big talk - we'll see about that.
Quickly, the flashback returns us to 1931, where Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is a veterinary student at Cornell University when his parents die in a car wreck, a tragedy that leaves him, in an instant, orphaned and homeless. Naturally, he rides the rails, hopping a train one dark night and waking the next morning to discover this is no ordinary choo-choo. Seems that Jacob has accidentally run away to join the circus - the Benzini Bros. Circus, to be precise, not exactly in the class of the Ringling siblings but a going concern nonetheless. Or as Jacob so poetically puts it after sneaking a peek at the unfurled canvas and the acrobats and high-flyers and tight-rope walkers and especially the beautiful Marlena on her white steed, "They created heaven in one day."
Director Francis Lawrence works even faster. With a cinematographic assist from Rodrigo Prieto, he manages to instantly recreate the Depression as a sun-dappled, set-dressed, gold-burnished slice of paradise. Tough times never looked so good. Still, in these early frames, there's fun to be had when the lens pokes (albeit discreetly) into heaven's underbelly - the strippers beckoning the men folk into a private tent, the tainted meat fed to the caged animals, the toothless lion that's all roar and no bite. Fun too is Christoph Waltz as the scariest cat in the place. His August is the owner, ringleader, top con artist, and, yes, another inglorious bastard, a psychotic mix of snake charm and undiluted menace whose idea of corporate downsizing is to toss any extraneous labour right off the speeding train. Oh, he's also Marlena's husband.
We're led to believe that lovely Marlena is a product of countless foster homes, a school-of-hard-knocks grad plucked off the mean streets by August and invited into a marriage of mutual convenience and, it's hinted, kinky sex. Well, all that's a tad difficult to credit given the amusingly miscast presence of Reese Witherspoon who, much like the Depression, is shot to resemble a sunny innocent, with just the cutest freckles on her pert little nose. Then again, innocents do attract, which helps to explain the budding romance with boyish Jacob.
Hired on as the circus vet, he bonds with Marlena over her stricken horsie, and later they make up an amorous threesome with the real star of the show. That would be Rosie the elephant, an amiable behemoth who boasts freckles of her own and a pachyderm's knack for stealing every scene she's in. You gotta love Rosie. Some segments of the audience will probably love Pattinson too. Indeed, stripped of his vampiric duties in Twilight, and playing the quietly observant type, he acquits himself relatively well, at least up to the point when the quiet is broken with dialogue like, "You're a beautiful woman, you deserve a beautiful life".
As for that pledged "disaster" at the climax, it seemed woefully anti-climactic to these skeptical eyes. Of course, skepticism is precisely what any visit to the circus demands that you leave behind. Which brings me back to the opening question. The elephant in the picture is obvious, but the one in the room is harder to quantify: Does the sheer Hollywood hoopla - hunky young Pattinson, histrionic Waltz, Witherspoon haloed in back-lighting, Rosie doing head-stands, the Depression making nice - add up to a perversely enjoyable brand of something that can be loosely called entertainment? I think it does. More important, for the sake of the tinsel in Tinseltown, I know it must.
Water for Elephants
- Directed by Francis Lawrence
- Written by Richard LaGravenese
- Starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz
- Classification: PG