Let me save some of you some time…
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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.