April 30, 2011

Water For Elephants (04/30/2011)

Lettergrade: C+

On the surface, everything about Water For Elephants appears to be top notch... the actors, the photography, the sets, the music... but scene after scene, the movie feels like it's missing something intangible that makes it all "work." I can't put my finger on what that is, to be honest.

Largely taking place during the height of the Great Depression, the picture has Twilight's Robert Pattinson as a gifted student about to finish his veterinarian degree at a prestigious Ivy League school. That doesn't happen because his parents are suddenly killed in a car crash, and since they leveraged all they had to pay his tuition, the bank repossesses the family home, and he is left with no money to complete his education.

Pattinson then does the only logical thing: He hops a train on his way to who-knows-where where he will then do who-knows-what. As it turns out, the train he randomly selects is used to haul one of the era's many traveling circuses. A kindly old James Whitmore clone gets him a job shoveling assorted animal feces with the show, which he quickly parlays into being named the circus's full-time vet. The sadistic owner / ringmaster who gives him that promotion is played by the charmifying Christoph Waltz, forever doomed to be cast as sociopathic assholes and monsters after his wonderful role in Inglourious Basterds two years ago. He has a thing for beating up the animals every so often, including the elephant who joins the group early in the flick. The show's headline performer also happens to be his wife. She's played by Reese Witherspoon, so Pattinson is contractually bound to fall in love with her pretty much upon first glance, creating a classic King Arthur style love triangle, but you know, with more disturbing animal abuse.

Is the cast the reason the movie isn't entirely successful? No, I don't think so, but it feels like we're getting close... I'm not sure that Pattinson's smoldering sexuality is right for this role, honestly, but it's not like he does a poor job or ever feels inadequate. My guess is that he got the gig over guys like Emile Hirsch and Andrew Garfield because the producers predicted that having a Twilight star on the poster would send pre-teen sales through the roof, which was true in our theater, at least. Waltz, too (stepping in for Sean Penn, who departed the movie shortly before filming), is strong and engaging, and even finds a surprising way to inject heart into a twisted character that feels a bit underwritten. Less effective is Witherspoon, who again is fine, but seems just a little unengaged with the material, perhaps indicating that she had an idea that the picture wasn't firing on all cylinders.

And in fact... maybe that's what's not quite right about this one. The characters all work in and of themselves, but they don't necessarily work with eachother. I guess I didn't quite buy that Witherspoon was ever in love enough with Waltz to marry him in the first place, nor that she was falling for Pattinson as the picture went on. The thing that's missing are those little moments that get you to really believe what you're seeing. The chemistry. I saw a very pretty, very professionally made picture where it felt like a lot of decisions were made because it's a coming-of-age / joining-the-circus / stupping-the-bosses'-wife movie and these are the sorts of things that are supposed to happen in them. The scenes where Waltz would lose his shit and beat up the elephant (off screen) were disturbing, of course, but I think that's pretty much a given. The climax is very well-staged and exciting, but I never feel that a good finish makes up for the first 2/3rds being a little sloppy.

The director is Francis Lawrence, whose last feature was 2007's I Am Legend, which I rather liked. Richard LaGravenese's screenplay is based on a novel by Sara Gruen, which was written as part of National Novel Writing Month. I haven't read it, but whatever was special enough about her work to turn it into a best seller honestly doesn't quite translate to the screen here. The picture hung onto a few devices like Hal Holbrook appearing as an older version of Pattinson's character (who bookends the main action as its elderly narrator) that frankly feel utterly superfluous. A book is a book, and a movie is a movie. Each must tailor itself for the medium it exists in.

All in all, it's not a bad picture, but it's one that seems to have been designed for Awards season, and yet it was released in April, far away from the time such films tend to be released for nomination purposes. There's probably an implicit caution note there which should not be ignored, lest you walk in thinking that you're about to see The Horse Whisperer or something.

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