Since I’m not a Robert Pattinson fan and I wasn’t overly impressed with the trailer for Water for Elephants, my original plan this week was to see Apollo 18. But Apollo 18 was bumped to January for some reason, so my only choices were Water for Elephants or African Cats. I love big cats, but how do you review a documentary about them? “There were some cats. They were cute?” So I ended up seeing Water for Elephants instead. It’s based on a best-selling novel by Sara Gruen and its story goes like this:
A destitute an Ivy League vet student gets hired by a circus to work with the animals and makes the mistake of falling in love with his boss’s wife.
It’s an age old tale, or rather two age old tales: running away to join the circus and falling in love with someone else’s spouse. The movie also uses some standard plot points but it somehow makes them seem fresh and different. I was skeptical about how good it would be, but then I saw it and I was surprised to find that I agreed with all those advance reviewers who were raving about how good it was. Water for Elephants is excellent, but not so much because of Robert Pattinson as because of the elephant.
Yes, there is an elephant in Water for Elephants, and it plays a central role in the story. The title Water for Elephants will even make sense to you once you watch the movie. But I digress. The movie opens in the present, with an old man named Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) turning up after hours at a circus and telling his tale of the 1931 Benzini Brothers circus disaster to the owner, Charlie (Paul Schneider) over a glass of whisky. This a framing device similar to the one used in Big Fish.
Uh, sir, could you maybe not stand in front of the huge trucks?
In 1931, Hal Holbrook looked like Robert Pattinson and he was a Cornell veterinary sciences student from a Polish family… for about three seconds, because as soon as he sits down to write his final exam, some official looking men come in to tell him his parents have been killed and (since this is the depression) all their assets have been seized by the bank. This is a pretty standard “hero’s journey” setup, as everyone knows heroes (aka main characters) can’t have parents.
Geez, they couldn’t have waited until after the exam to drop that bomb?
Poor sad destitute Jacob decides to leave his small town home and walk to Albany to find a job, which he does by walking in the middle of the railroad tracks like an idiot begging to be run over by several thousand tons of speeding steel.
(singing) I walk a lonely road… please don’t mash me, train.
However, instead of being run over by a train, he hops onto it and is almost immediately thrown off again because the train belongs to the Benzini Brothers Circus. There are thugs randomly patrolling it and tossing over anyone who’s not pulling their weight because the circus master is a bastard. Jacob is saved by dint of being Polish and being found by the Polish head of the roustabouts (the dirty people who set things up). Jacob falls in with them, and suddenly a circus life blooms before him.
Metaphorically represented by the tents going up.
There’s actually a huge amount of work that needs to be done on a daily basis to set up and rip down all those enormous tents and displays, and it’s very impressive to watch. The huge cast of secondary and tertiary characters (performers, roustabouts, thugs, trainers, freaks, etc.) combined with the menagerie of performing animals and sweeping 1930s-style cinematography really help the circus come alive.
This is the sort of movie where you really need that SPCA disclaimer to feel okay about watching it, though.
With so many animals, there’s a lot of animal poop to shovel, as Jacob discovers, but luckily he doesn’t have to shovel it for long. Once he meets the circus master, August (Christophe Waltz), his education helps him land a job as the circus vet and August’s new best friend.
Throw him off the train. I mean, keep him.
Jacob is fascinated by Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) a performer who works with trained horses, and bonds with her over the illness of her favorite horse. She’s the boss’s wife, and should therefore be off limits, but when August buys an elephant and assigns Jacob to be its handler and Marlena to ride it, it’s pretty much inevitable that the two of them will fall in love. It’s actually kind of a love triangle, really, because the two of them love the elephant, Rosie (played by Tai the elephant), and Rosie is constantly feeling up Jacob with her trunk on account of she’s the founding member of the RPatz Fan Club for Elephants.
It must be hard to work with an elephant trunk in your face.
As far as I’m concerned, Tai the elephant is the best actor in the movie. She parades, lies down, lifts her legs, lets people ride her, rears like a horse, does hand stands, unstakes and restakes herself, gives kisses, and is generally lovable and believable. It’s more than I’ve seen some human actors do (think Nicholas Cage). Reece Witherspoon (who is unremarkable), Robert Pattinson (who’s still doing the leering, broody, Edward Cullen thing) and Christophe Waltz (who is playing the same exact character as in Inglorious Basterds) all pale in comparison to Tai.
At least August is a realistically portrayed abuser, crazy and mean
sometimes but also contrite and manipulative at other times.
August’s abusive tendencies coupled with Jacob and Marlena’s budding romance and the increasingly unstable financial state of the circus (this is the depression, after all) all combine to cause the aforementioned 1931 Benzini Brothers circus disaster, and when it all comes together, it’s very satisfying. The writing is tight, the loose ends are tied, and the audience gets a satisfying conclusion. I really couldn’t find anything wrong with the writing at all except for a few sappy/sexist lines, and that’s a pretty rare thing for me.
JACOB: “You’re a beautiful woman, you deserve a beautiful life.”
MARLENA: “So if I was ugly I would deserve an ugly life?”
JACOB: “Um, I don’t think that’s what I mean.”
Richard LaGravenese (who also adapted P.S. I Love You) should get a lot of credit for this, because even though the book was written by someone else, it’s hard to carve a coherent screenplay out of a big block of literary fiction like that. The director, Francis Lawrence, and the cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, also deserve some props for making it look so good.
So should you go see Water for Elephants? Yes. It is well worth $11.50 for a ticket. In fact, it’s (almost) as good as people have been saying it is.