Water for Elephants is not awful

Let me save some of you some time…


Feel free to copy and paste that in comments section below and save everyone some time.


I’ve never read Water for Elephants but the story, as explained to me by people who have read it, sounded pretty basic. Young man in Depression-era America loses his parents, drops out of veterinary school, joins a circus and becomes the handler of an elephant. He goes on to fall in love with the beautiful wife of the cruel ringmaster, they have a torrid affair, get caught, and ultimately run away together after the elephant conveniently revenges herself on said abusive ringmaster. And oh yeah, the whole thing is recounted by the young man, now old, to a modern-day circus after he runs away from the nursing home he lives in because his family forgets to visit him (that SUCKS). The book was a huge bestseller but romance novels—and Water for Elephants is very much a romance novel—don’t really interest me so it’s not something I’m ever likely to read.

Good news—you don’t have to read the book to understand and enjoy Water for Elephants: The Movie. That’s not always the case with adaptations but this film does a good job separating itself from its source material. Though people who have read the book have complained about x, y or z getting left out of the movie, I didn’t feel like anything was truncated or short-changed in the movie. Everything flowed together and made sense and followed a logical progression. There were some clunkers in the dialogue, which I will assume come from the source text, but not too much and it was kind of pleasantly cheesy in the way that old-fashioned melodramas are pleasantly cheesy.

Water for Elephants, as directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine), is just that—an old-fashioned melodrama. It’s romantic and flowery and everyone is beautifully lit and despite the era—Dust Bowl America—everything is sun-kissed and shiny. Shot in buttery light and with rich gold and bold red tones, the movie is visually gorgeous. The costumes are great—I wanted everything Reese Witherspoon wore as Marlena, the beautiful wife of the cruel ringmaster. Both male leads, Robert Pattinson (The Twilight Saga) and Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds), looked fantastic in their various suits and ensembles. Pattinson in particular, with his height, really pulled off the high-waisted pants of the era. This is the kind of movie you could watch with the sound off and enjoy just for its cinematography and artistic design.

Unfortunately, despite its lovely palette, Water for Elephants didn’t quite work. The reviews to this point have banged on about it, but yeah—there’s no chemistry. And not just romantically (though Pattinson and Witherspoon never really click), there’s no chemistry anywhere. It’s as if each actor is delivering his or her lines in a vacuum, acting their scenes independently of one another. It’s particularly frustrating watching Waltz—he HAS to be the scariest guy working right now—flounder with no one to anchor him. He crushes everyone under his boot heel, stomping all over everything with so little effort that it eventually becomes embarrassing for him. Waltz dropped out of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method to make this movie. Why, Christoph? WHY?

I can accept that this movie probably looked really good on paper. It’s a good story, and better suited for the cinema than a book, since the world of the traveling circus is such an inherently visual one. But the lack of chemistry in the cast undid a lot of what was working in this film, and I’m chalking that up to weird and/or outright bad casting. For one, Witherspoon didn’t work in this era for me at all. She looked like Reese Witherspoon In A Photoshoot throughout the movie—I didn’t buy her as a person living that life in that era. It just looked like playing dress-up the whole time with her. Further, she was least engaged of the central trio and also appeared to be phoning it in at times. I didn’t believe that Jacob (Pattinson) would risk all that he did for her. She didn’t seem special enough.

As for Pattinson, well, he’s not terrible. I once asked, Can Robert Pattinson Act, and the answer has been upgraded to “kind of”. To his credit, he really tries with Witherspoon. I feel like, with pretty much anyone else, he would’ve had decent enough chemistry but Witherspoon gave off an indulgent, older-sibling vibe throughout that worked against their romantic relationship. And he gets chewed up and spit out by Waltz, but really, who doesn’t? That’s almost a privilege, to be stomped on by an actor like Christoph Waltz. Pattinson remains game throughout, giving his most cohesive performance to date, it’s just that there’s not a lot to work with. He remains, primarily, a reactor, not an actor.

But, and this is a big BUT… Pattinson has the kind of screen presence that doesn’t come along often. He is really, really hard to look away from. And no, it’s not just because he’s pretty. It’s an ease in front of the camera that can’t be bought or taught. The lens loves him and something about Pattinson invites our gaze at every moment. This is the first time I’ve seen Pattinson and have really been floored by his ability to command a camera without any apparent effort. As pretentious as it sounds, acting is a muscle that can be built up with time and hard work. If Pattinson continues to choose roles that pair him with good actors and directors—people who can teach and push him—he could combine that learned ability with his natural magnetism and end up offering us a unique experience in theaters: an old-fashioned leading man with charm and charisma and just enough ability to make his characters believable.

Water for Elephants ends up being an uneven movie, divided by its high production values and its flat storytelling, but it’s not a total waste of two hours. While ultimately forgettable, it’s a pleasant enough diversion while it’s happening.

8 thoughts on “Water for Elephants is not awful

  1. Kaylie

    I’m not a Twilight fan, so you’ll get no angry comments from me. haha.
    I haven’t seen the movie, but I did read the book. What you said above about not understanding why Jacob would risk everything for her… that she didn’t seem special enough… I had those feelings while reading the book. She rode her horses and burst into tears every now and then, making Jacob feel sorry for her. And then when the violence starts, he understandably wants to get her away from it… but I never understood why he liked her in the first place. Just seemed like “well she’s BLONDE, so why WOULDN’T he like her?!?!” Ewwww. So what I’m saying is maybe Reese didn’t have much to work with on that front. (But again, I haven’t seen the movie. Just offering up a suggestion).

  2. kimmy

    completely agree with you! as far as movie adaptations go, this one wasn’t a bad one per say. i want to like robert pattinson the actor and not jsut the pretty face, but he fell flat to me. i don’t know if that was his fault, the director’s fault, or just the lack of chemistry. any young actor would have a tough time keeping up w/ christoph, so its not that either. i thought rob’s best scenes were the ones showing his facial reactions to whatever cruelty was going on. he had more chemistry w/ rosie than w/ reese!!

  3. Miranda

    I loved your review and I completely agree. I saw the film last weekend and haven’t been able to articulate my opinion. I’m going to just refer people to your review. Plus- I can’t believe the crap, hate mail people write. I don’t always agree with you but you’re always cool and witty!

  4. sunny

    You know, I was thinking about Witherspoon, and I completely agree that she just didn’t work in this role. There’s been a lot of commentary about her lack of chemistry with Pattinson, and I blame her, not him. She’s disconnected from the role and the movie. And really, where HAS she shown chemistry with her costar? Maybe with Joaquin Phoenix? Ha, Ryan Phillippe (as dubious as honor as that is)? I honestly can’t think of anyone else, as many movies of hers that I’ve seen. It’d be laughable to say she had chemistry with Luke Wilson. Or Owen. Or Patrick Dempsey. I think her MO is sort of to exist above the story and just be the gal that everybody loves. The examples where she connects with her costars are the exceptions, not the rule. (And I prefer the Election Witherspoon to her current incarnation anyway.)

    I loved what you said about Pattinson. He really lit up the screen. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His problem might be that he overthinks his acting choices. He’s able to act more naturally with animals and children than with adults right now, but I too think with the right movie, director and co-star choices, he could be the real deal. The majority of critics really missed the boat on him in this movie (particularly Salon calling him “dour” – seriously, it made me question whether the critic actually watched the movie).

    Overall, though, I liked this movie, for the simple reason that I thought it was a great escape to that time period. I really felt swept up into that life.

  5. Virginia

    I think this review is spot on. Nothing to add except that my movie club chose to see this movie last night. I had already seen it over the weekend, but went again and I actually enjoyed it much more on second screening. Your point about how the camera loves Robert Pattison was even more obvious when I watched it again.

  6. Rae

    Great review. I read the book and watched the movie. I like Robert Pattinson as an actor…or more the potential I see. I completely agree with the magnetism, and (don’t hate me) I think he has an “interesting intrigue” about him that reminds me a bit of Johnny Depp. I don’t know he just seems like a person, instead of some cookie cutter Hollywood imitation. It’s sort of like…you want him to do well.

    Anyway, back to WFE…in the book Marlena reads as much more innocent to me. The Marlena I read about really didn’t know how to survive on her own so when she sees an opportunity with Jacob, she takes it. I agree that in the move you don’t really see Marlena, I saw Reese Witherspoon.

    As for why Jacob would pick her, you believe (in the book) that Jacob is young and this is a first-love experience that catches him off guard. Either way the chemistry doesn’t work between them, but you enjoy the ride nonetheless.

  7. Hi!

    I agree with this review mostly. I read the book, and in my opinion the most problem is the story. The romance barely works in the book. Marlena and at times even Jacob is underdeveloped. I did not root for them that much in the book, and the movie didn’t chance my opinion. There’s no love, just a shallow attraction and maybe later a urge to protection in the face of the danger of August. For a romance that tries to sell their relationship as LOVE, it does not convince, and in the end that is detrimental in both movie and book.

    I liked the book for the same reason I sorta liked the movie: The circus life is very interesting in the book, and it got even better in the movie. It is a beutiful movie.

    The only part that I think Rob and Reese chemistry worked is the epilogue at the very end, the black & White silent movie. Made me want the movie was silent. It worked, it seemed very honest and in THAT I could believe they end up loving each other.

    And I agree Christopher is superb, Rob has a lot of potential but has a lot to learn in acting, Reese does NOT convince in interviews and and this is also true in the movie (even tough the character is flawed, if they casted a more charismatic actress it may have worked better).

    About the hatemail, that’s the problem why even tough I’m a Rob’s fan I never say anything. This crazy people makes us all look bad, brings the knee jerk judgement other people has about him and anyone that claims being his fan. I don’t agree the way people judge him just for him being him, and I hate being in a position that I’m compared to the crazy imbeciles that writes those awful e-mails.

    I hape that with time this shit gets better.

  8. T Brizzizzle

    Water For Elephants as a film was not terrible, but close. So much information about all the characters was left out from the novel. A mini series would have served the novel so much better. Probably would not have made the same money, and that’s really the determining factor, so….maybe again in 25 years. Kind of like Lonesome Dove, a 2 hr movie never would have worked on that novel, and although it garners a cult following, and I do enjoy watching it, the mini series, while very good, did not measure up to the novel. Too much information omitted…but, what’re you gonna do? You can’t make an 18 hour miniseries. It’s a trade off, and Water For Elephants traded story for revenue. The novel wad really good and the film was not.

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