Water for Elephants (2011)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz
Halfway through Water for Elephants, I wondered if I was suffering from deja vu. “I’ve seen this movie before,” I thought to myself as the romantic story unfolded before my eyes. This was a glaring reason why I wasn’t too fond of the film, but for the same reason, I understood why it was such a best-selling novel. The story doesn’t reinvent the genre, in fact it plays everything safe without pushing any buttons. It’s a standard in romance that are loved by many and mocked by others. I like to say it’s “Titanic with an elephant.”
Hal Holbrook plays the elderly version of our main character and narrator, Jacob Jankowski. He tells the story of the most infamous day in history for The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob (played by Rob Pattinson) hops on the train of the traveling circus and the only thing that keeps him from being thrown off is that he schooled at Cornell in veterinary science. He becomes the circus’ new vet.
He soon becomes a favorite of the leader and ringmaster, August. As expected, August is a short-tempered, cruel man with an innocent and beautiful wife, Marlene (Reese Witherspoon). Jacob’s intelligence, care for the animals, and his devilish good looks causes Marlena and him to fall in love. But Marlene cannot see past the consequences to give him a chance.
Oh, and there’s an elephant that August purchases and pushes to become the new grand act that will make him rich. Jacob and Marlena bond with the elephant while August sees her as money-making mechanism. He gives due when it’s deserved, as he takes out Marlena and Jacob to celebrate their success with Rosie. But he’s only lighting the fire between them, which he soon detects.
There are moments of great suspense in the film, which comes from the danger that everyone is in. The stand-out scene, because of the wonderful Christoph Waltz, is after Marlena and Jacob kiss for the first time and after August suspects the worst from the look in their eyes. August forces them to act out a new feature he visioned for the performance, the betrayal of a wife who falls for the runaway. The two know their feelings have been caught. How will August react?
There is actually a decent amount of violence in the film, which has a PG-13 rating. But like I said earlier, my main problem with the film is that it was too typical and too safe. It didn’t take any chances when it could’ve. The sex scene consisted of kissing and Pattinson’s shirt coming off with a number of vague close-ups. August’s character was the bad guy, but I didn’t find myself entirely rooting against him. Sure, it’s unforgivable to strike a woman, but he has anger management issues and she in fact broke her vows to her husband. And where were the flaws of Jacob? Everyone liked him (or learned to like him), he was great at his job, won the girl’s heart. Things were too neat in a film that should’ve gone deeper into the situations.
But that’s why this novel and film has been receiving such success. It’s a story that has been told over and over again, yet still wins over the hearts of its audience. While Witherspoon and Pattinson don’t come close to the chemistry of DiCaprio and Winslet (Titanic) or Gosling and McAdams (The Notebook), it’s simply good enough. Though, during a film of mediocrity, Christoph Waltz continues to amaze me.