MOVIE REVIEW: Water for Elephants


Whether it's Harry Potter, Tom Clancy spy tales, The Da Vinci Code, a measly comic book (ahem, excuse me, graphic novel), or a classic piece of fiction from a century ago, once a literary work gets annointed to become a movie on the big screen, the fan outcry of "the-book-is-better-than-the-movie" gets played to death.  The "ruined" label too is also thrown around.  Of course, the book is better than the movie.  A book has hundreds of pages to tell its story in every engrossing and rich detail possible to create a picture for the reader where there isn't one on the page.  A movie has to impossibly condense everything in a book into two hours of something shoot-able and coherent.  Book will always beat movie like rock beats scissors.

It's certain that same debate will surround the new release, Water for Elephants.  As you may have heard, Water For Elephants is based on the highly-acclaimed 2006 novel of author Sara Gruen.  It's a cherished novel (aren't they all?) to its fanbase, making for a greatly anticipated film.  The novel and the movie will now be forever linked, when the only pertinent and fair thing to do is judge them separately.

Book readers, let it go and just watch the movie.  You'll always have the original book waiting for you back on the shelf when the movie inevitably fails to meet your expectations.  For Water for Elephants, this reviewer has not read the source novel and can only judge the movie played before him, just as everyone should.  On that merit, the movie has enough flaws to make a non-reader really wonder what all the fuss about the book is for.

The film opens on 90+ year-old man (the always good Hal Holbrook) standing in the rain outside of a closed circus in the present day.  A benevolent manager get him out of the rain and starts calling nursing homes to pick him up when a story unfolds.  That story takes us back to the early 1930s.  Our elderly narrator becomes Jacob Jankowski (Twilight's Robert Pattinson, which has to kill "Edward vs. Jacob" fans), a Cornell veterinary student who misses graduating and certifying as a licensed practitioner when a tragedy leaves him without the money to finish school.  Desperate, he walks aimlessly away from that failed life, looking for his place in the Depression-era world.

Fate intervenes when he jumps a train to get out of walking.  Low and behold, it's a circus train for The Benzini Brothers "Most Spectacular Show on Earth" and they (after some introductions) just might have a use for Jacob's talent and skill with animals.  Jacob sees this as a chance at a new, adventurous, and possibly rewarding life, especially once he catches a glimpse of Marlena (Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon), the enchanting equestrian performer of the troupe's main attraction.

Alas, Jacob, one of the "rustabout" circus commoners, has aimed too high because Marlena is (naturally) also the wife of the circus owner, his boss August (fellow Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz).  He, beneath his top hat and smile, is as all-round ruthless about money as he is with people and animals.  When August acquires an elephant, Rosie, as the new main attraction for Marlena and the show, he enlists Jacob, with his skills, to be in charge of the animal's training.  That working relationship draws Jacob and Marlena together for what is sure to piss August off something fierce, as you will see.

Adapting Gruen's words into dialogue and scenes is screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, a Hollywood specialist at romantic fiction (The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, and Beloved).  LaGravenese, as you can tell from that resume, is an expert at squeezing cinematic melodrama from written melodrama.  However, for those moviegoers who are fans of the original Gruen novel, ask any fan of the other books on that resume list of LaGravenese.  You will know he's been prone to make unpopular changes from the source novel, even to the point of changing endings.  This reviewer has not read the novel, but offers a "buyer beware" all the same (particularly at the complete absence of the Uncle Al character).

In this film, LaGravenese squeezes the melodrama so well that you may feel like you just had your mouth washed out with soap.  The central love story feels too much like a soap opera.  It lacks defining chemistry, and has a disconnection that keeps you from rooting for the lovers or feeling like they completely belong together. 

Water for Elephants is a very long way from other flashback-based romances like The Notebook, LaGravenese's own script for The Bridges of Madison Country, or even The English Patient.  Maybe some of that is by design from the novel, but this is no star-crossed love story of unbridled and heart-wrenching passion.  Blame the lead performances. 

Book readers can probably tell you who they envisioned as Jacob and Marlena when they read the book.  Chances are they didn't have Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon high on the list.  Pattinson has two acting moves:  the Twilight smolder and the ability to avoid kissing a woman at close proximity.  He overuses both of them and can't do much more other than stand there and stare, making you guess whether or not he has a pulse (surprise, surprise, vampire fans).  Reese Witherspoon is an Oscar winner at leaving a husband fromWalk the Line.  Her Marlena is definitely an angel worth saving from an abusive relationship, but she plays her with too little passion (outside of the impressive circus performances) and too much Reese Witherspoon pluck. 

The only actor walking around with passion (the wrong kind) is Christoph Waltz.  Unfortunately, even his performance feels too much like a retread of his Oscar-winning Col. Landa role from Inglourious Basterds, only put to animals instead of Jews and with a PG-13 rating in mind.  If the soap opera fails to grab you, then the movie's extremely high technical prowess and attention to period detail will impress you and make up for it. 

Water for Elephants is directed by former music video director Francis Lawrence, who is definitely stepping up in class in this, his third feature film after I Am Legend and Constantine.  From beginning to end in the film, through great costumes, set design on the train, art direction for the traveling show, and subtle special effects, the 1930's period detail of every single scene is extraordinary.  Never before has a circus on the silver screen, both behind-the-scenes and under the big-top, looked so good.  Lawrence and his crew with brilliant camera movement to capture both the physical stunt performances and the sparkle of amazement in the gathered audiences.  If the melodrama doesn't work, that entertainment alone is worth the price of admission.  Even when judged as a movie and not the novel, Water for Elephants is only a one-trick pony.

LESSON #1: THOU SHALL NOT COVET ANOTHER MAN'S WIFE-- Dude, not to get all "Ten Commandments" on everyone, but, Robert Pattinson, you can have just about any woman you want and you pick the boss's wife?  Sure, she looks silky-hot like Reese Witherspoon, but there are other fish in the sea, Edward/Jacob.  Stick to the bearded lady.  It's less risk in your profession.

LESSON #2:  BE KIND TO ANIMALS-- It's almost a "Cruella De Vil" cliche that villain of a movie just happens to be mean to animals in their spare time, but, alas it's true.  Call the SPCA on August.  Be nice to animals, people, and they'll be nice to you.

LESSON #3:  THE ILLUSION BETWEEN PUBLIC PERCEPTION AND WHAT GOES ON BEHIND-THE-SCENES--  With this lesson, the examples are big and small.  You might have a married couple who are all smiles in public, but are on the rocks behind closed doors.  A funny example is the ball-busting banter you see in Anchorman before or after the cameras roll.  On a big scale, it could be the fractured lifestyle of a Hollywood star that only the tabloids show or the poor business practices that you never see as a customer.  The fictional Benzini Brothers show and our look behind-the-tent with our characters fits this example.  Nevertheless the example you witness, know that what you see in public, on any scale, is a calculated and manufactured product that more than likely isn't really what you see when you're not looking, without polish and cover-up.