Let me get something out of the way right off the bat: Water for Elephants isn’t a bad movie. It’s just not a particularly good one. As date movies go, it’s by far not on the top of the pile, but it’s no Madea’s Big Happy Alex Will Kill Himself If You Make Him See Any Tyler Perry. If you’re looking to do something with your significant other on the romantic side of things, it’s this or…I don’t even know, Source Code, maybe? Look, there’s not exactly an abundance of romantic movies out right now. Folks looking for something like this have to take what they can get.
Anyway, point is, it’s not a bad movie. The Robert Pattinson haters don’t have any ammunition with this one. The guy’s starting to come out from that awful Twilight cloud, and he deserves the chance to do so. At any rate, read along with me, and I’ll tell you why.
Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), following a car accident that ends with the death of his parents and the destruction of his education as a vet, takes to the rails during the Great Depression. You know it is the Great Depression because the side characters don’t go ten minutes without mentioning this fact. Searching for work, he hops on a passing train and finds himself traveling with the Benzini Brothers circus, run by the slick, yet dangerous August (Christoph Waltz). Jacob is hired on as a vet, eventually being put in charge of the circus’ new act: a bull elephant named Rosie, to be ridden by Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), circus headliner and August’s wife. Jacob and Marlena quickly find themselves beginning to fall for one another, and they must risk the ire of August’s terrible wrath to see their love through.
This is a romantic movie where the romance simply doesn’t work. Both Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon do a fairly decent job with two roles that are on the bare side, but they simply have no chemistry. With a movie being advertised as the year’s big romantic movie, The Notebook with an elephant, this obviously won’t do. This is especially a shame because the movie’s paced fairly well, right up until their “romantic” moments, which grab the fantastic pacing and drive it into the dirt. I can’t stress enough that both actors are giving decent performances. I’m honestly puzzling over why their romance felt so unbelievable. Perhaps it’s because the screenwriter’s idea of romance seems to mainly involve some stolen glances, whispering about how wrong the whole situation is, and the odd kiss. The writing is really, in general, an issue throughout the movie. There are some truly talented actors here, and you can almost hear them struggling with the clunky dialogue.
The exception, as you could imagine, is Christoph Waltz. Waltz plays a damn fine villain, regardless of the strength of the material. The problem with August, as a character, is that he abuses the elephant. For most people, abusing an animal is the absolute epitome of evil. That said, Waltz makes it work. He shows August as not just this snake, doing whatever to keep his profits up, but a man with the burdens of dozens of people’s livelihoods on his back who goes too far under the pressure. Does it make what he does right? No, but it gives it context. It makes him a person, not just a character. This is accomplished entirely through Waltz’s own irresistible brand of venomous charm. Unfortunately, a lot of this characterization gets thrown out the window in the film’s last act, when I suppose the writer decided he needed a villain instead of a well-drawn character.
The film really benefits from some solid cinematography and art direction. Call me a sucker, but Depression-era circuses just have this magic about them. There’s a very authentic look and feel to this movie. It is occasionally ruined when a character tries too hard to spout out the circus folk jargon. The film doesn’t have the dirt and the grime about it like the excellent HBO series Carnivale, but it captures a very evocative time period through the cinematography. The effectiveness is reduced, as previously mentioned, by the constant references to “this damn Depression going on.” And don’t tell me they’re not capitalizing it when they say it, because that is how I hear it every time they say it.
Water for Elephants is basically your only option out there, at the coming of the summer blockbuster onslaught, for a more quiet-ish romance movie, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s not going to change the way you look at romances. It’s not a Titanic or a Love, Actually, but, to mangle my grammar, it’s not not worth your time. If you have a couple hours to spend, and you’ve already seen or cannot see Hanna or Super, the two best movies in theaters right now, Water for Elephants is worth checking out.