Water for Elephants
Don’t Look Too Deep

Films about the illusion of art are a tricky thing.  Personally, I can’t think of a better topic for a movie.  And when the approach works—as with something like Barton Fink—well, I just can’t get enough.

I got enough of Water for Elephants.

The basic setup of the story, based on Sara Gruen’s novel, is similar to Fried Green Tomatoes or The Notebook (or Fill-in-the-blank: isn’t this approach getting a little tired?): a senior citizen with a story to tell finds himself in the presence of an interested and underinformed listener who serves as the audience’s alter-ego in getting sucked into the tale in question. 

Here, the tale is about Jacob Jankowski, a first-generation Pole aspiring to fill his father’s shoes as a veterinarian.  But fate has other ideas, and when he jumps a depression-era train, he unexpectedly finds himself in the employ of the Bernzini Bros. Circus—and as odd man out in a love triangle with circus ringmaster August Rosenbluth and animal-act star (and the ringmaster’s wife) Marlena.

When the main attraction of the circus is tragically killed, it falls to its newest member—Rosie, an elephant acquired as a castoff from a competing bankrupt circus—to bail out August and save the greatest show, uh, in the film.  August is, naturally, an abusive cad, so Jacob not only has to save Rosie, but Marlena as well.

Robert Pattinson as Jacob in Water for ElephantsThe first two-thirds of the film, while not exactly brilliant, are engaging and beautiful.  The casting is canny as Hal Holbrook (the elder Jacob) draws us in, while Robert Pattinson is perhaps surprisingly effective as the younger Jacob, Reese Witherspoon is luminescent as Marlena (the script, after all, calls for her to be), and Christoph Waltz is, well, Waltz as August.  Richard LaGravenese’s script goes through the predictable paces without drifting too far off into clichés; but journeyman director Francis Lawrence presents the most appealing depiction of a circus since Something Wicked This Way Comes.  The cinematography is simply brilliant, and Lawrence deftly captures the magic of what circuses have come to represent in our culture.  The sequence in which the Bernzini big-top goes up is particularly stunning.

Oddly, the story and film both completely dodge what we know today about the underbelly of circuses.  Sure, August is a schmuck; but think of how this particular schmuck would have taken advantage of midgets, minorities, or David Lynch’s Elephant Man.  Lawrence’s vision of circus life, August and labor troubles aside, is comparatively shiny.

I still could have forgiven that gloss if the story hadn’t thrown all plausibility to the wind in the third act.  Characters jump off of moving trains without so much as getting dusty despite landing directly in a roadway; characters afoot manage to catch up to steaming locomotives; black eyes magically disappear; and Rosie, in the midst of her climactic performance, inexplicably finds herself staked out simply because it’s narratively convenient for her to be… even though everything in that scene but the kitchen sink is running amok.

I suppose that the inconsistencies could be chalked up to the elder Jacob, as storyteller, rather than to Lawrence as director.  But if the filmmakers were after a tall tale, the cutting room floor must have been littered with most of the footage that sold that aspect of the storyline.

Like the circus that it is the subject of this story, Water for Elephants jumps the rails.  And it’s a shame, too.  As Witherspoon mentions in the very perfunctory special features on this home video release, it’s a wonderful thing when a great director teams up with a brilliant cinematographer, costume designer, and production designer to do their thing.

This is the kind of film I’d love to be able to recommend.  But I can’t.

Sorry.

Water for Elephants is rated PG-13 for “moments of intense violence and sexual content.”  I found it odd, and even a little disturbing, that the story doesn’t set up Jacob and Marlena as virtuous people caught up in a story bigger than themselves (a la Doctor Zhivago).  Instead, the illicit spark of aspiring infidelity is excused, essentially, on the grounds that Jacob is just a horny twenty-something.  This is a morally shallow film, and I wouldn’t deliberately subject kids I care about to this nonsense.

Courtesy of the film’s distributor, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Water for Elephants.