Movie Review: Even an elephant might forget ‘Elephants’Movie Review Thursday, April 28th, 2011
A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly published a letter from a reader expressing astonishment that the magazine’s cover story on Water for Elephants focused almost exclusively on Robert Pattinson while his costar Reese Witherspoon got barely a mention. The gist of the complaint was that Pattinson is a flavor-of-the-week matinee idol and Witherspoon is a real actress, a real star.
While no one at EW responded, I’d bet that the editors would agree with the letter writer. But like the marketing execs working on the promotion of Water for Elephants, a big budget, big studio film based on the highly successful novel by Sara Gruen, EW’s editors know what’s selling right now: Robert Pattinson.
Pattinson first caught the eye of several tens of millions of teenage girls as Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; but it was playing Edward Cullen, the sensitive and smoldering vampire in the Twilight movies, that made him the biggest teen crush object since Titanic made Leonardo DiCaprio. While Pattinson is arguably better looking – his features are almost stunningly perfect – he is inarguably a less talented actor. He smolders well; he does happy and sad and concerned and lusty with aplomb, but if you’re looking for any complexity in these emotions, you’re out of luck.
Yet the teenage girls that marketers imagine don’t want complexity. These imagined girls want simple heroes, easy villains and nothing rougher than what is allowed for PG-13.
These sorts of calculations are obvious in Water for Elephants, an inoffensive, mostly unbelievable romance set during the Great Depression. Pattinson is Jacob, a naive and handsome veterinary student who ends up working at a second-rate circus, first as a roustabout and then as the staff vet.
The ringmaster, August, is violent and dictatorial. This isn’t much of a stretch for Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds.
Witherspoon plays August’s wife Marlena, who is the star of the circus, first because of her horse act and then because of her act with Rosie, an elephant Jacob is tasked with training.
Jacob falls in love with Marlena the moment he sees her, and since the director Francis Lawrence bathes her in heavenly light and dresses her like 1930s ingénue, Jacob’s reaction (and August’s possessiveness) is not too surprising. The love triangle leads to secrets and violence and some amazing animal tricks.
In many ways, the film is quite old-fashioned. With a different cast and a different director, it could have been a companion piece to 1952s The Greatest Show on Earth, a circus movie considered among the weakest films to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Water for Elephants suffers from the older film’s flaws. It’s too long, and the characters are two-dimensional. A few times, August is shown to feel regret, but nothing ever is explained about why he’s such a murderous bully. We’re offered back stories for Jacob and Marlena, but they don’t really explain or deepen their characters.
Worse, Pattinson and Witherspoon have less chemistry with each other than Pattinson does with the elephant playing Rosie. When she tickles him with her trunk, the glee on Pattinson’s face is the only true, the only infectious emotion in the entire movie.
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