Mmmm, what a delicious combination of cinematic ingredients! Add beautiful actors, stunningly rich production design, transcendent cinematography, glittering 1930s costumes, deceit, betrayal, love, lust, and trained animals, mix them up in an enormous circus tent, and voila! You have Francis Lawrence’s twisted little joy ride of a behind-the-big-top drama, Water For Elephants, the story of a young man beginning an unexpected, after college life.
The film begins in the somewhat cliché tradition of The Notebook and The Green Mile, but introducing us to the much aged Jocob Jankowski, (Hal Holbrook) standing in a circus parking lot long after hours. At first glance, it seems the old man may have lost a few screws over the years. As the circus’ owner, played by Paul Schneider, prods him with questions however, he soon finds that not only is the old man lucid, he has quite a story to tell, namely, the great tale of one of the greatest circus disasters in history.
Ordinarily, an introduction like this would have immediately turned me off due to it’s innate here-we-go-again quality. There is something different about this film though: the almost surreal picture quality, the sincerity with which the opening scene is directed and performed, and the few juicy dialogue lines of intrigue, excited me enough to kick off my shoes, curl up in my seat, and settle in for the two hour escape.
And what an escape it is. Nearly every single scene is richly layered with action, meaning, and a host of scenic elements for your eyes to dart to. In addition, the wide landscape scenes are grand enough to take your breath away, and it isn’t just because they are beautiful. Barreling down the tracks on a steaming locomotive beneath the vast, moon lit night sky was the perfect illustration of the feeling of a life beginning and the excitement for the journey ahead. Such is the journey of young Jacob, played by Robert Pattinson.
To tell you the truth, I really didn’t know what to expect from Hollywood’s dashing young starlet. Not to demean vampires in any way, but the artistic burden of playing a stoic, sexy, sparkling, member of the undeads has always seemed about as heavy as a few cloves of garlic. How would Mr. Pattinson fair when presented with a three dimensional, layered character who has suffered real pain, while experiencing love for the first time? Well, ladies and gentleman, I must say, I was thrilled to discover that our once pretty little blood sucker packs enough talent behind that chiseled face to truly become one of our next leading men. And thank goodness for him, or he would have been blown out of the water by the dynamic Christoph Waltz.
Waltz plays the tyrannical owner of the Benzini Brother’s traveling circus, August, who is a brutal as he is charming. What makes this character so frightening is that Waltz avoided the easy choice to make this man purely evil. By craftily layering the internal conflict, Waltz constructs a villain with the powerful combination of empathy and unpredictability. You don’t know whether this man is going to kiss you or kill you, and it works.
The one major problem with this film, most unfortunately, is the picturesque, elephant riding, ingénue, and Hollywood veteran… ring, ring! It’s Reese Witherspoon. That’s right folks, she phoned it in. The performance’s impact on the film is almost tragic. She returns Pattinson’s infatuation with boredom, and Waltz’s intimidation with half-hearted discomfort, making one wonder if she can ever return from the land of the half-wit romantic comedy.
That said, the film is not a wash because of her. If you do decide to make Water For Elephants your movie of choice for a night out, know that it is fairly easy to ignore Ms. Witherspoon and focus on all of the intricate production design surrounding her.