Water for Elephants

7 May

Title: Water for Elephants
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Francis Lawrence
Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Sara Gruen
Starring: 
Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, moments of intense violence and sexual content
Runtime: 
120 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
6.9
Rotten Tomatoes: 
57%

I love Reese Witherspoon, it’s as simple as that. I think she’s an amazingly talented actress, who’s also beautiful and really charming so I always jump at the opportunity of seeing her on-screen. Last year she was in How Do You Know, James L. Brooks’ disappointing new romantic comedy which I graded a B-, and at least now she’s in a considerably better movie, one that’s based on a pretty good novel, that’s really nicely told by director Francis Lawrence, beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto (who’s also done Brokeback Mountain and Babel), and that has some nice performances in it. But even though I really did like Water for Elephants, there was still one thing that kept me from really loving it, and that was the chemistry, or lack thereof, between Ms. Witherspoon and her male co-star, Robert Pattinson.

Now, don’t think that that’s because I dislike Robert Pattinson, because I honestly don’t. Sure, his performances in the Twilight films are nothing note-worthy, but they’re not horrible either and those films have been getting better and better, and his performance in last year’s Remember Me I thought was pretty decent. So it’s really not because I think Mr. Pattinson isn’t a great actor that the chemistry didn’t flow between our two leads here, it’s just that I didn’t, maybe it’s the eleven year age difference between the two (he actually played her son in a deleted scene of 2004’s Vanity Fair), maybe it’s something far more intangible than that, I just wasn’t sold.

But individually I thought they both did fine, Ms. Witherspoon especially, and even though the other people considered for their roles (Scarlett Johansson for hers and Channing Tatum, Emile Hirsch and Andrew Garfield for his) would have provided very interesting choices as well, except Mr. Tatum who I definitely wouldn’t thrust into a role like, and may have had some good chemistry between them, I wouldn’t change these two for a minute.

And credit really has to be given where it’s due, and much of it goes to Mr. Lawrence, who makes a drastic change in tone from having previously directed only Constantine and I Am Legend, and who crafts this one beautifully, he gets a very satisfying romance from a film that could have easily turned out to be a hugely cheesy affair. And even though his two main performers and Christoph Waltz, the main supporting one, were all turning in real solid performances, they were doing so without any seeming recognition of chemistry with each other, and Mr. Lawrence still pulled it all together nicely and the end product is one that’s much better than what I expected.

This is the romantic sort of film that I have no trouble embracing, one that feels so decidedly old-school and that finds in its story of a bareback rider for a circus, her husband who’s the extremely controlling circus owner, and a drop-out form Cornell’s veterinary school who enlists the circus a very satisfying romantic triangle. Mr. Waltz is the one who plays the circus owner, August, married to the lovely Marlena, who works on his circus on the main show that has her riding a beautiful horse and who’s controlled by August as though she was just as much his possession as the horse. Then we get to meet Mr. Pattinson’s character, Jacob (and yes I know Twilight fans will catch the irony of the name), who’s actually narrating the story to us as an older man, played by the great Hal Holbrook, and who was just a naïve young college drop-out when he stumbles upon the train, and August at first wanted to just throw him off it, until he realizes that his veterinary skills may be useful on his circus.

And it’s really nicely done here, Jack Fisk, a collaborator of Terrence Malick and an Oscar-nominee for his work in There Will Be Blood, is the production designer here, and his work gives this film a great feeling, one that without making use of any special effects still has this very magical look to it while still looking entirely plausible, and the sets he constructs here go a long ways to getting that effect. And even though the chemistry, like I’ve said, I found to be lacking, I still think these people give some pretty solid performances. Which is especially true of Mr. Waltz, who, much like he showed in his Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds, can play a controlling man who seems to be charming but is actually quite evil like few can. He does that again here as August, and its his jealousy towards the relationship that starts to bloom between Jacob and Marlena that gets this film going.

Water for Elephants feels like a classic film in many ways, because it deals just with people and their emotions, and it does so in an enchanting time. Marlena is always unabashedly loyal to her marriage with August, and we get the sense that a relationship with Jacob would obviously be the next logical step, but it’s unfortunate then that the chemistry between Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Pattinson is nowhere to be found, which is more his fault than hers really, since that really would have made this one a big success. Still, this one, though always bordering it, never really delves into its melodramatic potential entirely, which I found to be a great thing, and it serves as a nice film to watch now in early May right before we get a whole season full of effects-ladden summer blockbusters.

Grade: B

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