Water for Elephants

Movie Information

The Story: A circus worker during the Great Depression gets entangled with the show’s star attraction -- who just happens to be the boss’ wife. The Lowdown: A slick-looking romantic drama that lacks the right amount of whimsy or electricity to really work.
Score:

Genre: Romantic Drama
Director: Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend)
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reece Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Hal Holbrook
Rated: PG-13

As soon as Water for Elephants ended, my primary reaction was that most people’s mothers would like it. My theory was backed up pretty quickly after my own mother informed me of how much she enjoyed the film. Now, I do need to point out—and not just because my mom will probably read this and regardless of my mother’s exquisite taste (she did birth me, after all)—that stating that Water for Elephants is a film your mother will like is not a slight against the film, but merely an indication of the type of movie we’re dealing with here. It’s well-made and often slick, heavy on romance, and trades in black-and-white morality, doing everything you expect—and in some cases want—it to do. But at the same time, this perfectly well-produced veneer of austerity keeps the film in need of chemistry and fireworks, two things that ultimately restrain the film from being anything more.

In a lot of ways, Water for Elephants is very much in the vein of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) (though, thank heavens, much, much shorter), not just in its aims and the overall mood, but in the way the narrative is built and how it runs. Like Titanic, the story is framed within the tale of an elderly person, as they reminisce on a tragic event tied to a romantic interest in their life. In this case, a great big boat sinking is replaced by a circus disaster, told through the narration of Jacob (Hal Holbrook, who transforms into Robert Pattinson in flashback), who, during the Depression, ran off and joined the circus after the death of his parents.

Jacob, who almost finished veterinary school, soon finds work treating animals at the behest of the circus’ boss, August (Christoph Waltz), a showman and cutthroat businessman—to the point he throws people off his train in order to save money. August’s wife, Marlena (Reece Witherspoon), is the show’s star attraction, and of course—this being the type of movie it is—Jacob finds himself falling for her, despite that sort of romantic entanglement being completely forbidden, and constantly causing the film to veer on the edge of tragedy.

None of this is particularly original, meaning the way the material is handled is what makes the movie. Director Francis Lawrence has made a fine-looking film, and juggles the story’s elements well, which is a surprise looking at the man’s pedigree of music videos and CGI-heavy sci-fi. But, like a lot of music-video-turned-film directors, Lawrence doesn’t quite have a handle on the human aspects of the story, placing a premium on visuals while foregoing any sense of narrative whimsy or true emotion.

Not all of this is Lawrence’s fault. There’s an occasional clunkiness evident in the screenplay, which oscillates between the far-fetched and the mawkish, while the characters’ motivations always feel at the mercy of the script’s needs rather than anything organic or realistic. Then there’s the cast, which isn’t quite so bad as it is unexciting due to a real lack of chemistry between Witherspoon and Pattison. Even Cristoph Waltz’s maladjusted bad guy is a disappointment, because we’ve seen this role from him twice already (earlier this year in The Green Hornet, and most notably in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds).

Does all this mean that Water for Elephants is a bad movie? Not at all. It can even be pretty entertaining if you’re in the mood for its prepackaged romantics, but don’t go in expecting anything approaching cinematic electricity. Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.

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13 thoughts on “Water for Elephants

  1. As soon as Water for Elephants ended, my primary reaction was that most people’s mothers would like it. My theory was backed up pretty quickly after my own mother informed me of how much she enjoyed the film.

    I went and saw LIMILTESS with my mother on Saturday, and they played the trailer for this beforehand. As soon as it finished, she turned to me and said ‘Well, there’s something I’m not seeing’.

  2. Justin Souther

    Well she obviously doesn’t know what she’ll be missing out on, then.

  3. Lisa Watters

    Perhaps not all mothers can be painted with the same brush? Mine thought this one was pretty bad.

  4. Lisa Watters

    Funny you should ask – she’s Australian! Maybe it’s just Australian mothers who don’t like this movie. They’re a less sentimental bunch …

  5. Ken Hanke

    It does seem a curious possible factor.

    Sight unseen, my guess is that my mother (NC born) would like it based on the kind of movie it is, but might be less whelmed by Mr. Pattinson.

  6. luluthebeast

    Mary and I went to see it today and liked it overall, with Mary enjoying it more. I thought Tia and Waltz stole the show with Witherspoon doing what she usually does and Pattinson being the worst in the cast. As usual.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Witherspoon doing what she usually does

    Reaching pitches best heard by dogs?

  8. coursepate

    Why do I think this review was an early mother’s day present to his mom. This movie kept bordering B status. I think mis witherspoon was either acting down to reach mr pattinsons level of dumbstruck facial expressions or she gave up and just hammed it up seeing at mr waltz appeared to be …. I mean 3 stars ?
    the script was right at the edge of B material
    was there one acting job that didn’t feel amateurish…
    Even my gf responsible for my wasted hours confessed the crime of paying to sse it ….

    you have been warned

  9. Ken Hanke

    Methinks the gentleman with the excess of t’s takes the star ratings too much to heart.

  10. Justin Souther

    This movie kept bordering B status. I think mis witherspoon was either acting down to reach mr pattinsons level of dumbstruck facial expressions or she gave up and just hammed it up seeing at mr waltz appeared to be …. I mean 3 stars ?
    the script was right at the edge of B material

    By definition, I’d say three stars — which isn’t exactly a recommendation — is about right for something that “kept bordering on B status.”

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