Jose Solís, TheCostaRicaNews.com
From the man who gave us Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance comes a, well, bad romance. After directing the apocalyptic Constantine and I Am Legend, music video director Francis Lawrence takes on his first romantic drama. Based on Sara Gruen’s eponymous novel, Water for Elephants takes place in the magical world of the circus and has Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon as its leads.
The film opens on a circus where we meet 90-something-year-old Jacob Jankowski (played by Hal Holbrook), who seems to be waiting for someone or something. The circus owner (the splendid Paul Schneider) approaches him and tries to help him get back home, but as we soon learn, Jacob is “home.” After having a few drinks and small talk he delights the circus owner with his life story.
In the best Titanic fashion, the scene changes from the rainy chaos of the present, to a golden-light showered past, where Jacob is now played by Pattinson. We learn that during the Depression he was studying to become a vet in Cornell but after the death of his parents he had to fend for himself.
As it was typical for unemployed young men in the era, he climbs aboard the first train that passes him by and to his joy, it’s none other than The Benzini Bros.’ circus, where he finds a job and romance.
Jacob meets the vicious circus owner Augustus Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz) and his beautiful wife Marlena (Witherspoon) who also happens to be the spectacle’s main attraction. After Jacob’s veterinarian past is discovered, Augustus decides to squeeze the most out of him and buys himself an elephant named Rosie, which Jacob must train.
Most of the movie consists of scenes in which we see Jacob playing with Rosie, Marlena being moved by this and Augustus lingering in the back like those silent film villains that tied damsels and placed them in front of moving trains.
The film moves inconspicuously and becomes almost passive to the point that we are slightly shocked when we discover that Jacob and Marlena are in love.
Not only do Pattinson and Witherspoon fail to elicit any passion and chemistry, but the plot has moved in such an awkward manner that we understand that these events come to happen exclusively because they were written in the screenplay.
Instead of creating believable characters and defining their personalities, Lawrence concentrates on the glossiness of the story and there is not a single ugly moment in the entire movie. Not even when a furious Augustus beats Rosie, do we get any sense that this story could’ve actually happened, because everything has been sugarcoated to the point where the beauty of the circus prevails the darkness of humanity.
A villainous character like Augustus was supposed to create the kind of primal fear the unseen humans instilled in us in Dumbo. Instead he comes off looking like a parody of Lt. Hans Landa, the character Waltz played in Inglourious Bastards. Few actors in recent history have found themselves to be as limited in their character choices as Waltz, who in Hollywood has become the go-to guy for outlandish, almost caricaturesque villains (his upcoming turn as Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers probably won’t help).
This type of casting is perhaps what goes wrong with the film. Everything about it sounds great on paper: grab some of the most popular film stars in the industry, have them play yet another version of the characters they’ve been playing for years and add a cute Nicholas Sparks’-like twist to make the film a surefire hit. Yet the actual film results completely vapid, dull even.
Pattinson might be a matinee idol, but his good looks certainly don’t make him a good actor. He spends the entire film smiling awkwardly, delivering his lines in mumbles and staring at the floor. These moves worked for James Dean who also carried a heavy emotional load but Pattinson just makes us think that he’s the handsome guy who’s still afraid of cameras.
If there was a good casting choice in the film, it was choosing Holbrook to play the old Jacob. Holbrook could make rocks cry and his limited, tender performance gives the movie perfect bookends.
Witherspoon looks lovely, director of photography Rodrigo Pietro makes her look like Jean Harlow, but as a whole her performance is a little wanting. We never get a full sense of who Marlena is and Witherspoon, who’s obviously a much better actress, seems to be slacking through the entire movie. Perhaps all the training with the circus animals wore her down?
The strangest feeling in the film is that you leave it feeling cheated, forcing yourself to find likable things about it. Perhaps what adults feel after being to the circus for the first time since their childhood. The magic has been replaced by reality, the clowns’ happiness is taken over by the harshness of their lives. However, Water for Elephants never tries to demythify the idea of the circus, either. Instead, it insists in maintaining this sense of joy that brings people hope in times of societal and economical turmoil. It wants to have its cotton candy and eat it too.
Water for Elephants in theatres in Costa Rica April 22
Official Website: http://www.waterforelephants.com/
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz