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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 16
Emotionally clichéd Elephants a frustrating mess
Arts & Entertainment
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Emotionally clichéd Elephants a frustrating mess

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Water For Elephants
Opening April 22


After his parents are killed in an automobile accident and the bank repossesses their house, Cornell veterinary science student Jacob (Robert Pattinson) forgoes his finals and instead hops a train heading to an unknown destination. By doing so, he accidentally joins the Benzini Bros. Circus, and after convincing hotheaded owner and ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) to not toss him overboard, the young man is positive this is exactly what he needs to escape the emotional demons assaulting him.

Things get complicated the moment Jacob meets August's sexy younger wife and star center ring attraction Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). August is pathologically jealous and sports a frighteningly violent temper - a combination that could put Jacob's very life in danger.

Things get worse when the circus buys a gigantic elephant named Rosie. The lovable pachyderm apparently is unable to understand simple commands, and if she doesn't learn some signature tricks soon, the cost of keeping her could put Benzini Bros. out of business.

Based on the best-selling and emotionally rapturous novel by Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants is a rousing Great Depression-era tale of memories, regret, heartbreak, and heroism which I adored each and every page of. Its intimately researched saga of a young man taking charge of his life and the elephant who sparks a dangerous romance between two unlikely soul mates had me in tears more often then I care to admit.

Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Beloved, Living Out Loud) have adapted Gruen's novel for the screen, and let's just say the results are nowhere near as sublime. The pair have streamlined and condensed the prose considerably, excising key characters and parsing down the emotional action into cliché bits of melodrama that sadly grow tiresome. The resulting movie is a disappointing (if admittedly well-cast) letdown, and by the time it was over, all I could do was shake my head and wonder what went wrong.

Things begin well enough. The early sequences of Jacob learning the ropes of circus life and interacting with the wildly unstable August are priceless, and the cagy Waltz dominates the picture completely. From the way he twirls a cigarette between his fingers to how he rolls over every syllable of his dialogue with a malicious glint in his eye, the Inglourious Basterds Oscar-winner captured the essence of the material and the character to absolute perfection.

In many ways, a lot of the first half reminded me of glossy old Hollywood classics like Trapeze as Lawrence created a surreal, slightly hazy milieu that felt like a half-remembered dream. The sparks between Jacob and Marlena are palpable, and while Witherspoon is by far the better actor, there is something about the energy between her and Pattinson that makes him more worthy of emotional investment then he would have been otherwise.

But as things trudge along, the movie becomes sadly less and less interesting. Lawrence seems to be more engrossed in creating beautiful picture-postcard images than in grounding the core dramatics into anything real. By the time fists start flying and helpless souls are getting tossed off the train, the rushed nature of the denouement becomes borderline assaulting.

The last third of the picture is so glossy, so overly produced, so drowning in the tired over-familiar dramatics of a bad Douglas Sirk impersonation that any chance for the audience to care about what is going on is lost. Lawrence and LaGravenese don't just drop the ball; they kick it halfway across the stadium after they fill it so full of holes it becomes a lifeless shell of its former self.

The worst thing is that the final sequence - a shocking flurry of events that worked with a breathlessly brutal and poignant beauty in Gruen's novel - become borderline laughable as depicted by Lawrence. It's like the director goes into full Beastmaster mode, showcasing C-level theatrics he didn't stoop to in either of his previous (and somewhat silly) big-budget sci-fi spectacles. He doesn't know when to stop and doesn't know how to let the dialogue or the actors speak for themselves without drowning them with syrupy music or ungainly visual cues. The movie becomes an unceremonious mess, and in some small way made me question what I found so appealing about the source material in the first place.

There is a moment at the very end that shows the type of film this could have been while also signifying everything that Lawrence did wrong while attempting to bring it to life. Hal Holbrook has a brief monologue, a tiny bit of important insight into Jacob's journey, that shows what a great actor can do when given the opportunity. The music disappears, the camera fixes upon his weathered face, and the director allows LaGravenese's dialogue and Holbrook's delivery to speak for themselves.

But just as things reach their crescendo, Lawrence brings back James Newton Howard's (The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight) slightly overbearing score and starts playing with camera angles that undercut everything the character is trying to say. The power of the moment is drained away in its entirety, showcasing perfectly just how frustrating an experience watching Water for Elephants can be.

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