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Water for Elephants: Medium-top melodrama

When August (Christoph Waltz, left) begins to suspect that his wife, Mariena (Reese Witherspoon) and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) have become more than troupe acquaintances, he orchestrates a cruel charade and orders them to participate; we nervously eye this uncomfortable game, while also wondering why the circus owner has insisted on the presence of Rosie, the company's new elephant star. Courtesy photo

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April 22, 2011 | Leave Comment

‘Water for Elephants’

3 1/2 stars

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook

Rating: PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

Acting flavors of the month shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near prestige projects.

The newbie’s presence inevitably affects atmosphere and tone, and sometimes story elements are modified — or compromised — according to this fresh young talent’s strengths … or limitations.

Robert Pattinson’s most visible problem is an acting range that stretches most of the way from A to B. He delivers tortured angst quite well, having had plenty of practice as the sparkly vampire love interest in the “Twilight” series. The trouble is, Pattinson’s apparent takes on more cheerful emotions — happiness, satisfaction, love — still look very much like … well, tortured angst.

He’s therefore quite credible here while pining for Reese Witherspoon, or one of the most personable elephants ever captured on camera … although it looks very much like the way he pines for Kristin Stewart’s Bella, in the “Twilight” movies.

When things go his character’s way in “Water for Elephants,” though … well, it’s difficult to tell the difference. In a nutshell, both Witherspoon and supporting actor Christoph Waltz act circles around Pattinson.

In most other respects, director Francis Lawrence delivers a respectable adaptation of Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel, thanks is great part to a thoughtful, well-constructed screenplay from Richard LaGravanese (who also adapted “The Bridges of Madison County” and “The Horse Whisperer,” among his numerous other credits).

We meet Jacob (Pattinson) in the 1930s, as a polished and confident veterinary medicine student preparing to take the test that will confer his degree. But the exam is interrupted by a crisis: Jacob’s two loving parents have been killed in a road accident. The young man subsequently learns that he’s penniless, his parents having converted their house and business into cash, in order to fund their only child’s education.

Bereft and adrift, Jacob hits the road, unable to return to the life and career that had been so carefully planned.

When he subsequently hops a freight, he happens to pick one of the cars belonging to the Benzini Brothers circus, bound for its next town and performance. Although “adopted” by Camel (Jim Norton), a kindly old roustabout, Jacob eventually must be taken before the boss, August (Waltz). This unexpectedly refined “gentleman” orders the newcomer tossed off the train.

Desperate, Jacob cites his professional training and mentions his concerns about one of the gorgeous stallions in the circus horse act. Intrigued, August changes his mind and accepts the young man, certain that having his own circus vet would be an advantage over his hated rival, Ringling Bros.

The situation with the horse proceeds not quite according to plan, but along the way Jacob notices — and is noticed by — Mariena (Witherspoon), both the circus’ “star attraction” and August’s wife. Romantic sparks smolder, flicker into life, and we anticipate Trouble Down The Line.

By day, Jacob’s training and natural compassion immediately clash with August’s hard-scrabble pragmatism, particularly when it comes to the care of the circus animals. We might forgive August’s ruthless nature as a realistic reflection of the times, were it not for the gleam of psychopathic instability present in Waltz’s eyes.

As the actor did so well with his Academy Award-winning performance in “Inglourious Basterds,” Waltz unerringly walks a fine line between disarming courtliness and refined intelligence, and hair-trigger viciousness. He’s a passive/aggressive monster, pure and simple.

Witherspoon’s Mariena is similarly complicated, albeit more subtly. At first little more than the iconic presence that Jacob imagines her to be, this young woman gradually reveals her own wealth of insecurities. And the first time we see her calm August, bringing him down from a building rage (“I’m … right … HERE”), it feels like wifely care and concern. Only later do we realize that it’s mostly self-preservation; when consumed by his violent fits, August’s potential targets are indiscriminate.

Witherspoon has the greatest challenge here, because Mariena is the only character faced with a choice, and given the opportunity to mature; Jacob and August, as the good and evil lures at opposite ends of the tent, never change.

The already unstable situation gets even worse when August purchases an elephant, hoping to juice up box office sales.

We cringe at the very thought, knowing that this gentle, magnificent creature will become a new target for August’s unpredictable wrath. And that’s on top of what we already know about unmonitored circus life of this era, when nobody gave a second thought to “controlling” an elephant with a nasty implement known as a bull hook. All this is bad enough, but it becomes even worse because, from the very beginning, Rosie is a most personable and intelligent elephant.

Gruen’s book is laced with numerous magical scenes, good and bad; Lawrence’s film has only one, but it’s a charmer. Jacob, having befriended this mighty newcomer, is spending time with her one morning; Rosie spots a vat of lemonade at the edge of the tent, well beyond her reach. Using her trunk, she yanks out the metal stake to which her chain is tethered, and walks across the tent in order to guzzle the beverage. Then, her thirst quenched, she returns to her original spot … and replaces the stake.

From that moment, the certain knowledge of what’s coming frightens the hell out of us.

Lawrence is similarly deft with an early montage that shows how a circus is built, from the ground up, each time its train rolls into a new town; the process centers around the set-up of the big tent, a crowd-pleasing process that also bears the symbolic, community-spirited weight of a barn-raising.

And if this film doesn’t quite duplicate the total immersion we get within Gruen’s book — of both circus lore and life, and Depression-era desperation — chalk it up to perception on the part of both Lawrence and LaGravanese. Putting all the sordid details onto the screen would result in a movie that nobody could watch.

I therefore suspect that Gruen’s fans may be dissatisfied by what will feel like a slightly sanitized, Readers Digest compression of events. Those unfamiliar with the book won’t have that reaction; Lawrence and LaGravanese deliver a solid narrative with a satisfying beginning and end that bookend time well spent with compelling protagonists and often fascinating side folks.

This big-screen “Water for Elephants” is a reasonably acceptable melodrama, and it’ll certainly tug all the appropriate heartstrings at all the expected moments. But it falls short of greatness due to the limitations of its young male lead; we can only imagine how much better Lawrence’s film would be, with an actor who could match Witherspoon and Waltz’s intensity.

That truly would be circus magic.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

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