'Water for Elephants': Don't blame the elephant
"Water for Elephants," a film based on a novel by Sara Gruen and starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, is a sad reminder that some experiences are better on the page. The only parts of this film that feel real are the scenes with Tai the elephant.
Seattle Times movie critic
'Water for Elephants,' with Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook. Directed by Francis Lawrence, from a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Sara Gruen. 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. Several theaters.
Well, it isn't the elephant's fault.
Sara Gruen's popular novel "Water for Elephants" arrives on the big screen with a pretty whimper; a reminder, as if we needed it, that some experiences are better on the page. Set in the early 1930s, it's a love story with an exotic backdrop: the world of a traveling low-rent circus, in which Jacob (played by Robert Pattinson), a former veterinary student, finds purpose in taking care of the animals, particularly a newly acquired bull elephant named Rosie. He also finds love, in the form of the beautiful, melancholy equestrian Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) — who comes equipped with a volatile animal-trainer husband, August (Christoph Waltz).
Though the characters never feel fully fleshed out, the novel works as an unlikely fairy tale, filled with vivid details (many, Gruen has said, drawn from real life) about the day-to-day operations of a gimcrack Depression-era Most Spectacular Show on Earth. But the movie, directed by Francis Lawrence and scripted by Richard LaGravenese, pretties up the greasepaint and the tawdriness and cleans up the sex scenes. It also combines two nasty characters into one über-nasty one (August, who takes on many of the characteristics of the book's circus owner Uncle Al), further sentimentalizes the elderly Jacob (Hal Holbrook), who narrates the story, and layers on a gooey musical score. The result is a film that's lovely to look at, but doesn't hold much interest.
Pattinson, freed of his "Twilight" skin glitter, doesn't seem entirely freed of his "Twilight" persona; he's filmed here like a teen idol (the sunlight always seems to be uncannily caressing Jacob's cheekbones) and spends most of his time picturesquely brooding. Witherspoon's usual energy is muted here, and we're never quite sure whether her underwritten character loves Jacob, or why she feels committed to August. (She does, though, look smashing in '30s-platinum hair and slinky gowns.) Waltz, last seen playing a monstrous Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds," here plays a monstrous non-Nazi with a mysteriously wandering accent and a constant state of rage; you wonder if he's getting worried about typecasting, and if between scenes he was calling his agent asking for a nice-guy role.
The film's best performance is that of Tai the elephant, as Rosie, and the few moments of chemistry in "Water for Elephants" (as in "Eat Pray Love," where Julia Roberts only seemed to relax with an elephant co-star) are between Tai and Witherspoon, or Tai and Pattinson. You see little moments of genuine connection and joy between the animal and the stars; it's the only thing in this decorative but lifeless film that feels real.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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