By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
If you’re in the mood for some good old fashioned storytelling, director Francis Lawrence’s “Water for Elephants,” adapted by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese from the popular novel by Sara Gruen, is just the ticket. As comfortably familiar as dad’s old easy chair, but not as predictable, this circus saga plays to the romantic sucker in you.
It’s during the Great Depression when Robert Pattinson’s young Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student looking to belong somewhere, runs away and joins the circus. Not just any circus, mind you, but the Benzini Bros. Circus, the biggest of the little ragtag outfits traversing the impoverished land in search of crumbs Ringling Bros. fails to gather.
Vying for a niche within the insular community that dwells under the big top, he is soon interacting with and suffering the initiations of his new, clichéd pals. Good old Camel (Jim Norton), a Steinbeckian font of circus lore, takes Jacob under wing and imparts the rules of the rails. Lesson #1: Don’t even think about the boss’ wife.
High atop her white steed, Reese Witherspoon’s Marlena is a vision in white sequined leotards, touted as the show’s number one attraction. In contrast to the dishabille that betrays the circus’ pretense of glory and splendor, she is its undisputed nobility. While initially mysterious, it’s her husband, chief honcho August, who is the real enigma.
A tyrant of the first magnitude, but eager to impress this educated young man, Christoph Waltz’s August channels several of literature’s despots…men who establish their own little dictatorships at the fringes of regular society. Like Edward G. Robinson’s Wolf Larsen in “The Sea Wolf” (1941), they “would rather rein in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Then again, maybe he isn’t so bad at that. How could he be with such an angelic wife? And therein lies the conundrum as Jacob tries to reconcile his mixed emotions, identify his role in the face of such moral turpitude and, more pressingly, decide how he feels about Marlena. Meanwhile, the struggling show is sinking deeper and deeper in debt.
Enter the tale’s catalyst, the deus ex machina, or, more specifically, the 4 ton elephant in the story. Meet Rosie. Scavenged from a failed circus, she at last nullifies an inside joke at Benzini Bros. wherein new hires are told their duties will include fetching water for the nonexistent elephants. It’s hoped she’ll sell lots of tickets.
Down and out was never so colorful. And when August isn’t off on a tirade, dire straits have rarely been so welcoming…the circus offering a sense of community to those social wayfarers wishing an option somewhat less drastic than the Foreign Legion. Still, Jacob hears bad things, of men being brutalized, tossed off the train, some of them even killed.
Sure, he could just leave of his own accord. But increasingly enamored of Marlena, and realizing his knight in shining armor might be called upon by the damsel in distress at any given moment, it poses a problem at least worthy of an ethics class term paper. Thus the plot thickens, its main ingredient the forbidden fruit Witherspoon and Pattinson cultivate.
Verboten indeed, if you consider that Mr. Waltz, after a dramatic misstep as the comic villain in “The Green Hornet” (2011), is back in full, serious bad guy regalia as the perplexingly aberrant circus owner. Good tension is created via the ensuing triangle, the distrustful husband weaving a sinister web built of suspicion and diabolical egocentrism.
The tawdrily inviting subculture, of folks trying to make family from strangers, reminds of James Michener’s largely autobiographical “The Fires of Spring” (1949), a novel that, sorrowfully, never did make it to the big screen. While that was set in an amusement park, the sociological evocations are similar to what we are treated to in this circus.
Mr. Pattinson is appropriately handsome as the story’s moral conscience and soul searcher, a credible rendition of the young protagonist looking to find his place in the world. But if the usually cute and vastly capable Reese Witherspoon was always this sexy, my attentions were obviously elsewhere. She is for sure the show’s star attraction.
Yet, just to complicate matters, the thought crosses our minds that Marlena may be just as puzzling and potentially dangerous a character as her weird, ringmaster-spouse. Also alluring, but in a much bigger way, Rosie the elephant, played by a talented pachyderm named Tai, reminds that there are things more wondrously special than special effects.
Still, the avant-garde and those with hopes of one day becoming the avant-garde, should be warned. Yes, the metaphors are there to mull. But this is traditional, beginning, middle, end and moral-of-the-story filmmaking. And while not quite the greatest show on Earth, “Water for Elephants” does possess a sentimentality you won’t soon forget.
“Water for Elephants,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation release directed by Francis Lawrence and stars Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz. Running time: 122 minutes
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