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A Note on “Water for Elephants”

It’s taken me a while to think about what to really write about Water for Elephants.  I figure it’s because the movie itself doesn’t have anything interesting to say, there isn’t much depth to it, so there isn’t much to write about.  Have you ever watched a beautiful film, one with a warm welcoming color palate, a story that has been celebrated as prose, studded with the hottest A-Listers in Hollywood and then suddenly you get the sinking feeling that the director doesn’t understand the film he’s making?  That’s what happens when watching Water for Elephants.  I never read the book, but people I’ve talked to who have sing it’s praises. It’s a good story, at times overly sentimental and wistful, but I can see how this plot was captivating as a novel.  As a movie, however, this was the epitome of dull.

The film starts at a modern traveling circus with Hal Holbrook standing in the parking lot as the circus is wrapping up.  Paul Schnieder (from Parks and Rec, All The Real Girls, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) comes out to help the lost geriatric get back to the nursing home. But wait!  This is no ordinary feeble minded geriatric.  This guy has a story to tell and he is going to recount the entire summer of 1931 to this random circus worker. I write harshly about the conventions of retelling someone’s life story only because it’s become trite.  Remember in Titanic when we cut back to the old woman telling the story and the submariners are all captivated and we were left thinking “wait, why are they all so captivated? Is she telling the story better than James Cameron is, because maybe I should just be listening to her.”  That’s how I felt when we cut back to Paul Schnieder who is just riveted by Holbrook at the end.

The story is simple. Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is a student of veterinary medicine at Cornell University but drops out just shy of graduation when his parents die in a car accident and their debts take all Jacob has left.  So, he hits the road and accidentally ends up on a circus train.  The circus boss, August (Christoph Waltz), intends to throw him off the train at the next stop, but soon learns of his training as a vet and hires him on to care for the animals, especially his main attraction of black and white steeds. But, as I’m sure you can guess, the relationship becomes contentious as Jacob hopes to provide proper humane care for the animals and August intends on just keeping them healthy enough to perform.  Oh! And Jacob falls in love with August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

You will get a spark more quickly by rubbing glass against the flame retardant from a fire extinguisher than you will rubbing Reese and Robert together. They lacked anything resembling chemistry which fails to draw in the audience (even though my wife disagreed, she thought there was mild chemistry). Without any emotional investment in their relationship the entire story simply falls flat.  The only saving grace is 1) the, once again, fantastic performance by Christoph Waltz, which makes us wonder why it took so long for this actorto be introduced to the US moving-going audience. And 2) the gorgeous cinematography by Pierto.  However, while beautiful, the photographic choices were wrong for this story. Looking at the image posted, there is this clean, warm, welcoming train car housing an abused animal. But this is 1931, a rough and dirty year for the US, and nothing about this circus makes us think clean and welcoming.  They created a fairy tale with their images that, for me, didn’t work. The blame I lay on the director Francis Lawrence. He simply made the wrong choices of visual style, casting and how to execute the script.   The script itself was already a bit hookey, for lack of a better word, but Lawrence decided to slap the audience in the face with contrived emotions from emotionless scenes.  He handled the dialogue as if everything written in the script was the most important line, making sure that even the most throw-away lines were perfectly articulated toward the camera.  I really wish I could have seen this story directed by a director more willing to showcase some of the gritty atmosphere that should really surround this environment.

As I said, Waltz delivers another engrossing performance, but the way they handled August (as I later found out was two characters from the novel merged into one all-encompassing bad guy) was vilified so one-dimensionally that he might as well have strutted on stage with hisses in the sound track twisting his mustache wearing a monocle and cape.  He was supposed to be portrayed as this paranoid schizophrenic, which Waltz delivers as he goes from explosive rage to contrite in a matter of minutes, I just wish the idea of this character weren’t a movie cliche.  If it were left as two individual characters, Uncle Al as the irrational red-liner and August as the schizophrenic wife beater, I think the film would have had stronger dynamic and possibly would’ve given more sympathy toward August.  If he is buckling under the pressure that all the other circus workers are under working for the tyrant Uncle Al then his mood swings may have been justified. But the filmmakers didn’t do that. They decided to give two personalities to one character effectively changing the dynamic of the entire story.

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