WATER FOR ELEPHANTS C+
USA (122 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Francis Lawrence
An interesting box office combination, pairing the ever appealing Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon with teen idol sensation, Twilight boy Robert Pattinson, both extremely attractive and gorgeous to look at with People magazine important Hollywood faces, where, expectedly, the producers should make a killing. And placed in between these two, keeping them apart, why not implement another Academy Award winner, that sadistic Nazi from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), Christoph Waltz playing another sadistically evil man audiences love to hate? Let’s see, add up the Witherspoon crowd, the Twilight crowd, and the Tarantino crowd - - surely this is a match made in box office heaven. It very well may be, and it’s pleasantly enjoyable enough, but typical genre material, safe and playing by the book, with little razzle dazzle or excitement except the look of the film which appears terrific in the trailer, but uses the tried and true TITANIC (1997) formula of an old geezer (Hal Holbrook) recalling the entire film in a flashback sequence. Based on a best selling novel by Sara Gruen, the present recalls the Depression days, where Holbrook, an escapee on the loose from a nearby nursing home misses his connection of meeting his son at the circus, as he’s there in the evening while the performance took place in the afternoon. That leaves him plenty of time to have a drink with the young circus owner (Paul Schneider) and pour out his memories of the world’s worst circus disaster way back in 1931. Beautifully photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, especially the sensuous lighting scheme, which makes the intimate scenes in the cramped, lamp lit train cars seem even more delicate while also capturing the spectacular colors under the big top of the circus.
Pattinson, who will forever be associated with the Twilight series, doesn’t really stake out new territory. He’d have to be a deliciously evil guy for that to happen, or disfigured or handicapped in some kind of way, where he has an altogether different perception than being just another pretty face, as he is again here. Overly naïve and always idealistically good, he is the same character simply transplanted into a different story, an aspiring young veterinarian whose final exams are interrupted by the death of his Polish immigrant parents, leaving him to fend for himself, broke, alone, and homeless, as the bank took the house. Hitching the rails, as so many did during the Depression, he just happens to hop the train of the Great Benzini Brothers traveling circus, where he quickly makes a name for himself as the animal vet. But what really attracts his eyes is the star of the show, the scantily clad bareback rider, Witherspoon, blond and in curls, wearing backless, form fitting silk dresses, looking sensational. She’s married, however, to the boss of the show, the ringmaster Christoph Waltz who tyrannically rules with an iron fist, surrounded by guys with muscle who protect his every move. Immediately seen as a penny pincher and a guy who will do anything for a buck, like kick guys off a moving train if he can’t or is unwilling to pay them, his questionable ethics and ruthless tactics are betrayed by his perfectly charming and civilized manner, where his mood see saws back and forth, becoming uncontrollably jealous and wildly paranoid when he’s had too much to drink. In other words, he’s the fun character to watch, while the other two are running around behind the scenes trying to ignite sparks that never come.
But since this is a circus story, the real star of the show is Rosie the elephant, an animal with a soft spot for alcohol, but instantly becomes their sensational new act, the one designed to fill seats and make them rich, even though the initial performance goes haywire and nearly gets the star rider killed. But not to worry, elephants are smart and notice the difference in mood and temperament in terms of how they’re treated. Pattinson prefers not poking the poor animal with the hook, while Waltz gores the thing repeatedly until it bleeds. Pattinson’s good guy routine catches the twinkle in Reese’s eye, as both are animal lovers, and of course, Rosie is delighted by a friendlier handler. Perhaps the most absurd moment in the movie occurs when Pattinson discovers the animal speaks Polish, as it responds to commands in Polish and suddenly does circus tricks. Well this certainly saves the audience from having to endure the painfully repetitious acts of learning how to train an animal. Like magic, the animal saves the show. Waltz, on the other hand, continues to mistreat the animals, but none more than Reese, his own personal pet, that he likes to train his own way. If Pattinson objects, there are the muscle guys who will beat him bloody, forcing him to witness her mistreatment in silence. As he’s about to leave the circus for good, admitting he’s been whipped, there’s a commotion under the big top, where someone has released all the wild cats, where the lions and tigers are charging the audience and causing mayhem, screams everywhere as some people are trampled. In the middle of it all, of course, true love finds a way, sending the audience home with a Hallmark picture postcard finale, using a system of painting by numbers, supposedly pressing all the right buttons, but ultimately lacking in every respect except how to shoot the animals and the star performers and make them appear superficially glorious. The movie is easy on the eyes, but by the end, one is reminded of the infamous P.T. Barnum expression: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”