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Non-Review Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants is undoubtedly a well made film from a technical point of view. It stylishly evokes a collective memory of Depression-era America with a skilled romanticism, all beautifully staged and designed, scored with music clearly intended to tug at the heart-strings. However, despite the technical proficiency with which the film is crafted, it ends up feeling ultimately quite lifeless, and a little stale – like a mediocre circus, the movie is stylish and momentarily distracting, but it never manages to grasp its audience, or to engage.

He packed his trunk and said goodbye to the circus...

Part of the problem is, I think, the cynicism which undermines a lot of the movie’s sweetness. It’s supposedly the story of Jacob, the young son of Polish immigrants who studies veterinary science at Cornell. When a freak occurence leaves the young man broke and homeless, he runs away and joins the circus. Indeed, the movie opens on a much older Jacob waiting in a circus parking lot, and then sharing his story with a new generation of circus folk. When the young Jacob is taken in, he discovers that all is not as it might seem, and seduces a beautiful woman trapped in an abusive marriage, while confronting an evil ringmaster.

Along the way, Jacob is endearingly (and repeatedly) hazed by his circus mates, who come to warm to the young stowaway. He makes fast friends, and gets to train an elephant – he strikes up quite the emotional bond. He becomes a man, learns his place in the world, finds love and friends and happiness, while learning that material needs are not the only ones that have to be met. If it sounds like a fairy tale, that’s because it is one – it’s shot and edited as such, with bright colours and loud instrumental themes reminding the audience how they should feel at a given moment.

Takes two to tango...

However, the film bungles a whole host of relativist morality – it never acknowledges that we’re watching a film set in a different time and that the attitudes of the time might be dated a bit. We’re first informed that the ringmaster, August, is a bad man when he justifies animal cruelty to his young Cornell vet. Of course, hurting a poor defenseless animal (and allowing it to suffer for entertainment purposes) is a pretty efficient way of getting the audience to hate you. August could have bunted a baby from a moving train and have seemed a nicer guy. That said, it’s worth considering that there are (unfortunately) quite a few circuses working today where that sort of cruelty isn’t unheard of, so it’s hard to believe that any circus touring America in 1931 gave a rat’s ass about animal rights. The film immediately expects us to hate August for what was undoubtedly common practice at the time, so it feels somewhat underhanded.

Still, the film’s attitude towards his other actions seem somewhat stranger in this context. We’re informed that – when money is tight – August has a habit of “redlighting” circus folk. This basically involves throwing them from the train. While it’s moving. As he observes himself, there’s a chance you’ll survive, but there’s also a chance you won’t. Everyone admits that August does this early on. Indeed, between a set of stops, a character confirms that nine workers left the train in that manner. However, while this seems to make August a bit of a dodgy character, the film (and its protagonist, Jacob) are still more shocked by the fact he beats an elephant. In fact, while August is tossing staff like a light salad, Jacob is perfectly happy to drink with him and to go out on the town with him – and the film seems to pretend that the character’s true colours are hidden. It’s an interesting implication: mass murder is less severe than animal cruelty.

Don't talk about the elephant in the room...

Of course, until he “redlights” a member of the supporting cast, somebody who has a familiar face. Then, and only then, does the film show us a body splattered across the rocks. Only then does Jacob really lose it with August. I feel like I might be venturing dangerously close to invoking Godwin’s Law and crushing my own arguments, but there’s some pretty disturbing subtext – with August played by German Christoph Waltz disappearing people in the thirties, and Polish Jew Jacob not noticing until it’s too late due to his own self-absorption.

And let’s not forget how a bunch of angry workers exact their revenge on August. Without spoiling anything, it involves at least as much animal cruelty as August himself has inflicted, and also places not only the lives of the workers inside the circus at risk, but also the customers. Of course, it would financially ruin August, so I suppose that’s fair, right? And, while Jacob doesn’t take part in this, he endorses those who organise it, helping each other during the scene without a concern for anybody’s safety but their own (and August’s wife).

Creature comforts...

Of course, all of this might have slipped by completely unnoticed if the cast were charming enough to carry off the material. Robert Pattison isn’t as weak an actor as his detractors would have you believe, but he’s not a strong one, either. The script is weak, but a strong actor would find an opportunity to rise above it, even in a small way. It’s fun to compare Christoph Waltz and Pattison, both actors who shot to fame based on a cult performance – Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa, and Pattison as Edward Cullen. Both actors are saddled with awkward characters and stilted dialogue, but Waltz manages to at least be a little entertaining.

Take, for example, the scene early on where Waltz justifies his animal cruelty to Jacob, towering over him and speaking about how somebody so concerned about the suffering of animals has clearly never seen the suffering of man. That’s the sort of dialogue that a weaker actor would have difficulty with – it might seem corny, a little too on the nose, out of place – but Waltz actually makes the audience believe it, if only for a second. Pattison doesn’t have a moment like this all through the film, playing Jacob in a strange, alienated manner. It’s as if Pattison doesn’t trust his eyes and his face to relate his emotional state, instead forcing these strange motions out of his body. Consider, for instance, a moment near the beginning where Jacob sees the results of a car crash. His body twitches and flinches, but his eyes don’t show any hint of depth.

Grabbing the bull by the trunk...

Indeed, the only point at which Pattison shows any hint of charm is near the climax of the over-long film, when he finds himself cast in the familiar role of the defender of a weak female character – which is a little disappointing. Despite the flack that Pattison gets for playing Edward Cullen (and the way, from what I’ve seen in his interviews, he feels uncomfortable in the role), it seems to suit him. Here there’s a massive age gap between the lovers again. However, unlike a predatory century-old vampire preying on a dependent sixteen year old girl, this time Pattison is picking up an equally unable-to-fend-for-herself older lady.

While Pattison isn’t strong enough to ground the film, and Waltz valiantly struggles against the smothering screenplay, Reese Witherspoon seems to be just barely there. It’s strange, given how good the actress has been at transforming for other roles (Walk the Line and even Legally Blonde), but here it seems like she’s stuck on her “default” setting. She acts and enunciates like a modern person, so it’s strange to hear her character occasionally come out with a line of period dialogue like, “Good grief!” It just seems strange, like she’s almost being too casual for the film.

In fairness, the film is well staged and well choreographed. However, it never seems to come to life. Perhaps motivated by lackluster performances from its lead cast, the director seems to pump up the soundtrack like an emotional cue card to remind you how you should be feeling at a given moment. Some of the “wowwed” crowd shots near the start are cringe-inducingly cheesy. Even Christoph Waltz eventually succumbs to the bland character work in the screenplay. It’s a shame, because one senses there might have been a good idea here, if handled a bit differently.

6 Responses

  1. Nice review. It’s nice that you’re not on the Robert Pattinson hate-train. From the previews, the movie just didn’t seem to fit together. I mean, I like Waltz, Witherspoon, and can tolerate Pattinson, but something just seemed off. Your review seems to have nailed it.

    Btw, why do you consider Inglourious Basterds a “cult” movie? It seems strange to call a movie with a broad enough appeal to gross $320 million worldwide, be nominated for several academy awards and be critically well reviewed a cult movie. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with having a cult appeal (hell, Dark City is one of my favorite movies despite being pretty bizarre), but I’m curious why you classify it as such.

    • I don’t know, maybe “cult” was the wrong the word – perhaps I meant to say that both actors had developed a sort of a strong fandom based on single roles that they had played (albeit quite different fandoms). You are quite correct – “cult” was a poor choice of word in context.

  2. Actually, you may be on to something. In a way, it’s no different than Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Jeff Bridges as the Dude. These roles have a fandom separate almost from the movies themselves. That is to say, the affection people have for these characters extend beyond simple affection for the movies.

  3. I think you summarised everything quite nicely here, good review. I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to catch this one; too many good films, not enough time.

    • Thanks Ben. Yep, not one to rush out to see. Thor was a good start to the season, but I think the best may be yet to come.

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