Directed by Frances Lawrence, Written by Richard LaGravenese and Sara Gruen (book), 122 minutes, Rated PG-13.
By our guest blogger, Matthew Schimkowitz
Frances Lawrence sure knows how to put on a show--well, at least capture one. Wrangling some of the world’s most famous and talented actors and filming with lustrous charm, the director puts on a beautiful spectacle. However, while the film looks fantastic, its stars lack the connection needed to make this circus a true marvel.
After sudden tragedy kicks Jacob (Robert Pattinson) out of his house, the once-hardworking veterinary student hits the rails and meets up with a traveling circus. In need of a vet, August (Christoph Waltz), the show's owner, hires the vagabond to train their new showstopper, a 52-year-old elephant named Rosie. Despite not knowing how to train animals, Jacob accepts, but finds his position in jeopardy when he falls for the show’s main attraction and August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
“Water for Elephants” is certainly a beautiful film. Lawrence’s depiction of both the great depression and a traveling circus pushes forth his romantic interpretation of the bygone era. His look exists somewhere between the sheen of 1940s classic Hollywood, with some nods to the grime of John Ford and the extravagance of Orson Wells. Unfortunately, the director doesn’t gain their storytelling strengths as well.
Lawrence frames his film in the old-man-recollecting narrative, and the problems start there. Not even the great Hal Holbrook can spark a connection with his screen partner Paul Schneider, who couldn’t look more bored. Holbrook plays the elder Jacob, and his problem with Schneider appears to be a lifelong affliction. Pattinson, who plays young Jacob, is too distant to be an engaging protagonist, and it shows in his lifeless romance with Witherspoon.
Jacob’s story of a boy who runs away and joins the circus is really the least engaging part of the film. His quarrels with August and affair with Marlena pail in comparison to Lawrence’s circus, which is elegant and romantic. Much of this is the result of Pattinson’s coy performance, which brought him instant fame in the “Twilight Saga,” but fails him here. Lawrence needs a ring leader to draw in crowds. Pattinson, on the other hand, couldn’t be more distant.
“Water for Elephants” isn’t a bad film. Lawrence has a decent story and a great eye for capturing it. Witherspoon, with her delicate movements and some soft lighting, has a great classic Hollywood feel, while Waltz, as always, gives an emotionally complicated performance. But the star, the person we’re supposedly interested in following, that confused looking veterinarian on the screen, couldn’t be less interested in entertaining us.