The okay-est show on earth ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The okay-est show on earth

Water for Elephants
My rating:

Yay for counter-programming! The summer movie season is here, with all its ass-kicking stuff-upblowing CGI-filled blockbusters - which makes it such a nice reprieve to watch a smaller, quieter, more human-scale film for a change. (It also helps me keep my film critic cred, for which no good is done by only reviewing movies made for 15-year-olds.) Water for Elephants is based on Sara Gruen's novel of the same name, and the trailer looked intriguing enough for me to make it my next break from typical summer popcorn fare.

Well, as a reprieve from summer blockbusters, it's nice enough. But it's nowhere near the best of its kind.

An elderly man named Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) arrives at a circus, but too late to catch the show. He starts reminiscing to a circus worker of when he was 23 years old (Robert Pattinson) in 1931, a Cornell student who loses everything when his parents are killed in a car accident. Homeless, penniless and despondent, he stows away on a train which turns out to be the travelling Benzini Bros. circus. There, he befriends Camel (Jim Norton) and Walter (Mark Povinelli) and gets a job as the circus veterinarian from owner and ringmaster August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). He is also instantly smitten by the circus' star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who happens to be August's wife. When they bond over Rosie, an elephant that August purchased for the circus' menagerie, the attraction between them grows - and grows dangerous, due to August's insane jealousy and violent tendencies.

As I believe I have previously mentioned, I can be quite a sucker for a good romance. And this movie seems all set to be a grand, old-fashioned, soaring romantic melodrama. It certainly has all the potential for one; the Depression-era period, the fascinating little details of circus life, the abused-animal subplot carefully calculated to jerk a few tears, the romance that's all smoldering looks and absolutely no discussions about feelings. But it never quite lives up to it. It tries mightily to soar, but only ever manages a low flyby.

Part of it has to do with the cast. I like Robert Pattinson; he may be an easy target for snarkery for being the face of the Twilight franchise (an even easier target), but I don't think he's that bad an actor, certainly no worse (probably a damn sight better) than many others. (*coughPaulWalkercough*) But here, he just never quite brings Jacob Jankowski to life. Worst of all is that he and Reese Witherspoon simply don't have any chemistry, and that's crucial for this kind of classic-style love-at-practically-first-sight Hollywood romance. Witherspoon looks cute riding the elephant, but she's a lot more believable when she's trying to convince August that she loves him - and Marlena never really seems unhappy or uncomfortable around him.

She should be, of course, since August really is an absolute monster. Often charming, seemingly reasonable when he talks about the difficulties of keeping the circus afloat in the midst of the Depression, even sympathetic at times - but able to switch to violently abusive on a dime. And has no qualms about firing his workers by throwing them off a speeding train. He's a magnetic villain, and an actor of Christoph Waltz's caliber should've absolutely killed it. But I am of the opinion that he wasn't right for the role. There's always something goofy about Waltz's smile, which he parlayed magnificently in the goofy-yet-still-deadly Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. The generic villain roles that Hollywood has since put him in never use his talents right.

And there's also Francis Lawrence's directing, and Richard LaGravenese's screenplay. LaGravenese streamlines the plot of Gruen's novel well, but his dialogue is corny and on-the-nose in a lot of places - although I can forgive that as keeping with the old-fashioned vibe, almost as if it were made in 1931 as well as being set then. (Yes, I think that's definitely what this movie is going for.) What bugs me is how easy Jacob often had it; he has one too many strokes of contrivedly good luck. (Example: the train has left him behind, he's despondently following the tracks on foot, all seems lost - and then he finds the train again, because they stopped to clear a conveniently fallen tree off the track.) Lawrence is more known for Constantine and I Am Legend, so this is quite a departure for him, and he proves competent. But again, his direction never really soars to the heights it's aiming for.

"Merely competent" about sums up this movie. Talent of this caliber - Waltz, Witherspoon, LaGravenese, even Pattinson and Lawrence - means it's never bad, but never achieves greatness either. It exemplifies the saying "good is the enemy of great." But honestly, if you feel like watching a romantic melodrama on the big screen - or just feel like something other than a superhero comicbook adaptation or the latest instalment of an action-movie franchise - then I'd recommend Water for Elephants. And if you're an RPattz fangirl, you're gonna love it. If you like this kind of thing, then this is just the kind of thing you'll like.

Expectations: after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, pretty high


mell said...

yay! :)

McGarmott said...

I guess I was the only one who thought there were bucketloads of chemistry between Pattinson-Witherspoon. Critic cred all gone. (All other film reviewers agree with you.)

TMBF said...

@McGarmott: Oh don't worry, we all have opinions that go against the grain sometimes. ('Cept when I do it I'm being fearlessly iconoclastic, and when anyone else does it they're just wrong. ;)

mell said...

don't worry, McGarmott. I felt that chemistry too :)