Water for Elephants

It gives me no pleasure to say that the film based on Sarah Gruen’s phenomenal bestseller about a traveling circus is pretty to look at but limps along like a deflated balloon.

There are some worthy elements in Water for Elephants. It’s positively gorgeous, for one thing, thanks to the Depression era costumes and sets and the incredibly nostalgic cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Oscar nominated for Brokeback Mountain). The tent-raising scene, with its mammoth center post, cloud-like billowing canvas, and dozens of men straining to pull heavy ropes, is as memorable as the barn-raising scene in Witness. Except for one detail–the young man, Jacob (Robert Pattison), whose story the film is telling, walks through the magnificent scene as an observer, not as a sweaty participant–a revelation of character, alas, that doesn’t bode well for him or the film.

Despite harsh comments from most other film critics, which I think are really unfair, Pattison (the vampire hunk from Twilight) did a serviceable job as the homeless veterinarian who jumps a train and finds himself employed by a circus — and in love with the wife of the owner. He is empathetic and believable. Alas, he wasn’t very sexy–and for a movie in which a hot romance is the central element, that’s a big disappointment. Pattison’s most charming scenes were those with Rosie, the elephant, where he capably played both savior and friend.

In Pattison’s defense, however, I blame actress Reese Witherspoon and the director, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), for the lack of sizzle in the film. Witherspoon, a terrific actress, (Oscar-winning for Walk the Line) unfortunately plays the part of Marlena, just as she looks — a tiny, chaste Ice Princess. Not once does she make any gesture toward Pattison that is more passionate than long-lashed coyness. A boy can only do so much when the girl he’s trying to pursue keeps the brakes on all the time.

It’s the director’s job to help the actors shape their performances. Certainly director Lawrence must have seen the early dailies and saw immediately that passion was lacking. It was his job to fire it up. He didn’t have much help from the get-go with the lackluster script. Scripter Richard La Gravenese (who has written two of my favorite movies, Fisher King and The Horse Whisperer) never did seem to grasp the milieu of the story. It’s a circus for Pete’s sake, a weird, wacky, subversive universe, not an afternoon tea in 1930s parlor room. The dialogue, which should have sparkled with the quirky personalities and foreign speech patterns of the circus folk, was staid and ordinary. When you don’t have any passionate dialogue, even the most talented actors can’t pretend it’s there.

What the script did have was a lot of juicy dialogue for the villain. Circus owner/ring master August is played by Christoph Waltz with undiluted nasty residue from his iconic performance as the Nazi bad guy in Inglorious Basterds. He’s cruel and reptilian– and compared to the tongue-tied lovers–he’s absolutely eloquent. His evil, especially his cruelty to animals, is so over-the-top that everyone else is wimpy by comparison.

A famous disaster destroys the circus. Angry workers unlock the cages of the wild animals–they run amok, causing catastrophic death and destruction on the circus grounds and in the nearby town. Alas, what should have been a terrifying action sequence ends up being too short to have any impact. Big mistake — a great ending can mitigate a slow middle, but nothing can save a movie if the ending is ho-hum.

The film story is bookended in contemporary times as an old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) tells his tale to a kindly circus worker, played by Asheville native son, Paul Schneider. Schneider’s is a small part, barely noticeable in comparison to the main story, but Schneider, as always, gives a winning performance. For my dollar, Schneider is a hundred times sexier than Mr. Pattison. I sure hope some smart Hollywood director will agree with me and give Schneider the career jolting part he deserves.

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