Stars: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christopher Waltz, Hal Holbrook
Director: Francis Lawrence
The stage is set for high melodrama in the film adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel, Water For Elephants.
Told in flashback mode, a ninety-something guy named Jacob (Hal Holbrook) relates the story of his youthful exploits in the circus back in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is one exam away from graduating from veterinary school, when a family tragedy sets his life off-kilter and alters his destiny. He hooks up with a marginally run circus and learns to roll with the punches (literally) of life under the big top.
A little fudging of the truth gets him hired on as the outfit's veterinarian, by the (as we will see) amoral and sadistic ringmaster, August (Christopher Waltz). August treats his animals and his wife, Marlena, (Reese Witherspoon) with the same heavy hand. The Harlow-esque Marlena is steamy, and just low-brow enough to have been attracted to someone like August in the first place. But she has compassion for the animals, and a forbidden attraction between her and Jacob begins to develop.
Enter Rosie--a highly trained elephant who may be the most talented performer of this entire cast. August needs a new starring act to keep his near-failing operation going, and Rosie fills the bill in playful and adorable fashion. But August's methods of keeping Rosie in line are abusive, and hard to watch (even though we know the animal's not really being beaten for the movie--and I sat through all of the credits at the end just to see the statement that the animal action was monitored by the American Humane Association, and no animals were harmed during filming). What ensues is a roaringly dramatic climax to Water For Elephants that was easy to see coming, but that made it no less satisfying when it arrived. We can think of it as "poetic justice."
There is an amazing scene of chaos near the end where animals and people are stampeding every which way--an astonishing bit of choreography--and I'm still in awe of how they pulled it off!
Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) brings some depth to the character of August, to the point of where we can ALMOST dredge up some sympathy for the poor deranged bastard (spelled the correct way!)
Reese Witherspoon, who has that naturally wholesome looking face, shows us another side with her somewhat jaded, been-around-the-block Marlena.
The Most Wholesome award here goes to Pattinson, convincing enough as the fresh-faced good guy who tries to do the right thing in some emotionally charged situations.
While Water For Elephants is set in the thirties, I think you should know that circus animals are cruelly mistreated even today, and if you're a fan of the circus, I hope you will THINK about the price these wild animals pay--not the least of which is the loss of their freedom and dignity--just for the sake of providing circus entrepreneurs a living, and to give you a couple of hours of diversionary entertainment. If you think I'm exaggerating, I can direct you to plenty of web sites that contain actual photos and explanations of what goes on. I also encourage you to support some of the cruelty-free circuses, which feature human acts only--an increasing trend as awareness of the sad truth about animal-act circuses continues to grow.
Grade: A -