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Water for Elephants

April 23, 2011
Water for Elephants

These days they’re sort of passé and corny, but there was a time when a circus really did offer the greatest show in Earth. With travel and communication as cheap as they are, we have as much entertainment as we could possibly want, but it wasn’t always the case. When the circus came to town, even a ragtag outfit brought a sense of awe and wonder, and a giddy departure from normal, everyday life. But for those living under the big top, it wasn’t a vacation, but a way of life with its own worries and cares. Water for Elephants manages to walk exactly this tightrope, elating us with moments of transcendent beauty before turning and dropping us without a net. Few shows of any description manage to be so emotionally engaging, let alone across such a range.

It’s 1931, and Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is about to take his final exams and graduate from Cornell with a degree in veterinary medicine when both of his Polish immigrant parents are killed in a car accident. On top of that, he finds that they’d mortgaged their house to pay for his tuition, and what with the great depression settling in for the long haul, he finds himself homeless. Despondent, he sets off walking towards Albany, thinking he’ll find work in the city like so many other young men fleeing small towns across the country.

On a whim, he jumps onto a passing train, only to find himself in the midst of the roustabouts working for the Benzini Brothers circus. After working a few of the grittier jobs for a day’s performance, Jacob manages to convince the show’s owner and ringmaster, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), to hire him as the veterinarian for the animals. August’s cruel streak shows itself quickly, when he insists on making a horse with laminitis continue performing in pain for a few more shows to avoid losing his main attraction. When Jacob euthanizes the horse, August threatens to have him thrown off the train at full speed. Still, Jacob’s care with the animals endears him to the star performer — and August’s wife — Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

August’s next move is a wild gamble on an elephant, in the hopes that it will help draw in crowds, and thus pay for itself and the rest of the circus. He puts Jacob in charge of training it to perform in an act with Marlena, but again shows his violent temper when things don’t go as planned. Things manage to settle down, but the tension is always simmering, and we know it will eventually boil over into catasttrophe.

We know this, incidentally, because the whole story is framed as a flashback from the current day, where a much older Jacob (Hal Holbrook) is telling a young circus manager the real behind-the-scenes story of this infamous disaster. And this brings up what has to be the weakest part of the whole movie: Pattinson. As we move into the past, Holbrook’s voiceover cross-fades into Pattinson’s, and fades back as we come to the end. Every time Pattinson started narrating, I found myself wishing they’d just have let Holbrook do it instead. Still, that wouldn’t have helped with the acting itself, and we’re stuck with Pattinson’s two expressions: stonily sullen and goofily grinning. Although I’m given to understand that the latter is actually a new acting dimension he’s added since his work in Twilight.

It only throws his wooden acting into stark relief to see him next to not one but two Oscar-winning actors. The promotional materials for Your Highness may have contrasted Danny McBride with James Franco and Natalie Portman, but that movie didn’t need any real skill, and it’s much easier to act down than up. Witherspoon keeps reminding us what good work is supposed to look like. As she did in How Do You Know, she gives us a fully fleshed-out character. She effectively communicates so much of Marlena’s thoughts just through her face and posture, before she even has to open her mouth.

But Waltz steals the movie as usual, and it’s a shame that he’s probably still going to be considered a supporting actor here. As easy as it would be to view August as nothing but a cruel and greedy sadist, Waltz actually makes him almost sympathetic. He’s clearly not a character to be admired, but he’s a real person who we might pity as we shun him, rather than dismiss as merely evil; he’s certainly more of a person than Jacob ever is. Even more impressively, he gives a strong, original villain without resorting to the cartoonishness he used in The Green Hornet or the winking near-camp of Inglourious Basterds.

Still, good performances alone do not a great movie make, and Francis Lawrence deserves high praise indeed for his direction. It’s somewhat surprising that he brings out the best in his cast — including, it must be admitted, the best I’ve seen from Pattinson — from a background dominated by music videos. Indeed, his only two previous movies were Constantine and I Am Legend. But there’s plenty of room for his visual sensibilities to come to the fore. He crafts tableaux that draw us in, bringing us up and down almost despite ourselves.

When the big top goes up, Lawrence inspires in us all the awe and wonder that we might feel as small-town children seeing an elephant up close. When at last it comes down, we’re crushed. And between the two, we’re rapt — entranced by one of the most spectacular shows around.

Worth It: definitely.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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