April 22, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Watch It At Home; A circus story that’s not the greatest show in the multiplex.
Sometimes even a small moment in a movie can typify how it’s gone wrong.  There’s a scene fairly early in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS–it’s not a major plot point, for those wary of spoilers–where an animal loved by the circus performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) has to be put down.  The director Francis Lawrence keeps the camera on Witherspoon, who is exquisitely lit by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, so that her Depression-era platinum hair is perfectly haloed, even though the action is taking place in a dirty train freight car.  After the animal has been taken care of, Witherspoon sniffs back a single hint of a tear, wipes her nose just once, and says with just a barely perceptible quaver that she’s all right.  It’s like a museum exhibit of “sadness” rather than an emotion itself, and there in a peanut shell is Water For Elephants, genteel within an inch of its life.
The film opens at something of a crossroads for its principals.  For Lawrence, it follows Constantine and I Am Legend, and marks his first attempt to tell a story about people rather than CG effects.  Robert Pattinson is trying to prove himself a viable leading man as the clock runs down on his Twilight franchise stardom.  Witherspoon is following up the surprisingly total flop of James L Brooks’ How Do You Know; she could use a hit.  And this is Christoph Waltz’s first major film since winning the Oscar for Inglourious Basterds; he’d been unknown to US audiences before that, and no doubt would like to avoid falling back to obscurity.

Based on Sara Gruen’s bestseller (which I confess I haven’t read), Water is the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man yanked from his veterinary final exams at Cornell in 1931 because of a family tragedy.  He hops a train that turns out to belong to the Benzini Brothers Circus, a third-rate outfit that’s outlived the Benzinis, and is actually run by August (Waltz), who dreams of competing with Ringling Brothers.  August’s wife is Marlena, the star act of the troupe and object of his obsession.  Once August, desperate to increase audiences, finds out that Jacob has veterinary training, he purchases the veteran elephant Rosie, and decrees that Jacob must train the beast and Marlena ride him.  It’s not exactly hard to figure out that Jacob will have a near-mystical bond with the elephant, and that the relationship between Jacob, Marlena  and August will head for a dangerous place.
Lawrence’s direction and Richard LeGravenese’s script are even and pictorial, content to led the story plod forward like Rosie herself.  There’s not a moment of spontaneity or a line of dialogue that doesn’t further the plot, and the strenuously weathered production design might as well bear the labels of the prop houses that supplied its pieces.  Circuses on screen are difficult because some of the greatest directors in history have mined that territory:  Bergman with Sawdust and Tinsel, Ophuls with Lola Montes, and half of Fellini’s films among the most famous.  Shooting a circus in an uninteresting way is practically a crime against cinema, but that doesn’t seem to have troubled Lawrence much; he may as well be shooting a TV pilot.  (He makes matters even worse by slicking everything down with James Newton Howard’s heavyhanded score.)
The actors might have saved things with enough sheer magnetism, but that wasn’t to be.  Pattinson is far more robust than we’re used to seeing him on screen–although it’d be nice to see him in a part where he doesn’t have to shoot smolderingly longing looks at The Woman He Can’t Have–and his performance is generally fine, but he has so little chemistry with Witherspoon that I started looking at some of the other women in the cast and wondering if he’d be better off with one of them.  (The audience when I saw the film was laughing out loud at the big love scene, never a good sign.)  Witherspoon, for her part, looks great in her period outfits and that platinum hair, but her character lacks any snap at all, leaving her thin to the point of invisibility.  And Waltz does the genial sadist shtick he perfected in Basterds, even though the material here is far less rich.
Watching Water For Elephants, you feel like not a single person involved with making it has even once dreamed of running off with the circus.  They carefully keep all the potentially wild animals of their setting and characters safely locked in cages, and the result is sedate when it should be thrilling.

(WATER FOR ELEPHANTS – 20th Century Fox – 122 minutes – PG 13 – Director:  Francis Lawrence – Script:  Richard LaGravenese – Cast:  Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."