Water for Elephants is an Empty Bucket

As flat as the poster!


Directed by Francis Lawrence

Fox 2000, PG-13, 121 minutes

* * ½

Detail is what turns an outline into a story. Detail is what turns a collection of people and animals into a circus. Alas, the film treatment of Sara Gruen’s beloved novel Water for Elephants is an empty bucket that will leave those who’ve read the book parched, and those who’ve not wondering what all the fuss was about.

The year is 1931. Jacob Jankowski, the son of Polish immigrants, is about to achieve the American Dream: a degree in veterinary science from Cornell. That is, until his parents are killed on the day of his final exam. Jacob is left homeless, penniless, and adrift in the Great Depression. Possible salvation comes when he hops a train that belongs to the Benzini Brothers Circus, which just happens to need a guy like Jacob to take care of the animals. Gruen’s novel develops the cast of characters that populate the circus: the midget Kinko and his dog Queenie, hootchie kootchie dancer Barbara, the avuncular Camel, strongman Earl, and many others. Alas, the film pushes the minor characters to the background and, by so doing, drains away the color and leaves us with the sepia chrome of the three principals: Jacob (Robert Pattinson), brutal circus manager August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), and his star attraction wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

August is bipolar, capable of great tenderness, but prone to demons that make him into Hitler in a high hat. When the budget needs to be cut­—as it always must be for a third-rate ragtag outfit such as the Benzini Brothers—he orders his henchman Blackie to toss roustabouts and superfluous performers from moving trains rather than pay them off. Some will die from this, but August cares only for himself and for his prized possession, Marlena, and he’s abusive to her as well. August even exacts his wrath on Rosie, a 53-year-old elephant who might be the only thing that can save the circus. Naturally, his brutality appalls the animal-loving Jacob, whose position is all the more precarious because of the obvious frisson between him and Marlena. Need I tell you that this is not a formula for rational resolving of disagreement?

The first problem is that this isn’t enough to carry a two-hour movie. We know there will be a crisis and we’re just riding the train until it occurs. It could, I suppose, have made a decent character study, though one must ask who the hell goes to a circus to study psychology. To carry this off, however, would require three topnotch actors and only Waltz rises to the challenge. He is very good as August. As he should, he makes us not trust him, but we can also see how others could be taken in by his outward charms. Pattinson isn’t bad as Jacob, but he’s not very good either. Like most of the film and all of Lawrence’s direction, Pattinson is flat—he looks fine on the screen, but when real fire is needed he does little more than strike a match. Still, he’s miles better than Reece Witherspoon, who is all wrong for the part. She is, first of all, too modern in appearance and demeanor to convince us that she’s a 1930s gal. Second, as an actress she falls into the category of “minimally competent.” She has little range or rage, two essential characteristics of Marlena, if her actions are to make any sense at all. Witherspoon’s presence in this film can only be explained as a box office ploy to pair a pop icon (Witherspoon) with a hot commodity (Twilight lead Pattinson). It didn’t work; the film got tepid reviews (like this one) and endured a decent-but-not-spectacular box office. This is a metaphor for what’s wrong with the film: a circus should be spectacular, not just something to pass the time if you’re bored. This film is as toothless as the circus lion and not even the presence of Uggie, the Jack Russell Terrier from The Artist, can rescue it.

1 comment:

L Eaton said...

on one level, I certainly agree with you, Rob. But what I thought was interesting about the film was just how much it reflected the present and will most likely be used by future film historians to be discussed in that way.

The comparison between the upper echelon of employers, enjoying their fine dining, their trophy (wifes), and go chasing after elephants in order to keep the organization afloat, all the while, throwing (literally) workers from train. The owner will hit challenges, but will land on his feet.

Pattison's character too, left homeless (because his father's investments in the community were rendered meaningless in financial terms) and just shy of a degree means he has no place in this world, except in the precarious position in which despite his skills and competence, he's left to the whims of a--as you say--bipolar executive (and thinking about the head of the circus and his identity reminds me in some ways of the ways in which the documentary, The Corporation's conclusions about the mental capacity/sanity of corporations).