An elegant "Elephant"

April 26, 2011, 1:27 p.m. | By Sarah Harper | 12 years, 7 months ago

Lush cinematography compensates for poorly drawn characters

The circus has a timeless tradition of ostentation, and director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") does not shy from bold, showy backdrops in his latest film, "Water for Elephants." Despite the cast's lackluster performances, the film delivers a decadent look at one man's life in the circus during the dark, gritty era of the Great Depression.

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, "Water for Elephants" tells the tale of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), a veterinary student at Cornell University. After the death of his parents, Jacob searches for work and decides to hop aboard a train bound for the city. To his surprise, the train is not a freight but the traveling Benzini Brothers Circus, owned by the violent ringleader August (Christoph Waltz) and his starlet wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Jacob takes the veterinarian position and joins the eclectic, outrageous company of workers, quickly rising to the ranks of August's right-hand man. But the newest circus act – a trained elephant named Rosie – allows Jacob to befriend the outwardly abrasive Marlena. However, as their friendship develops into romance, August grows increasingly suspicious.

Pattinson, miscast as the lead, is unable to carry the film. His performance is one-note and inconsistent, lacking depth and sensitivity. Rather than a clear-cut character, he is an enigma to the audience, shifting from serious to ignorant to stoic in a single scene. Marlena is similarly cold and lifeless. It's unclear why Jacob is attracted to her, because she doesn't have any redeeming qualities or even the barest excuse for her mechanic behavior. Pattinson and Witherspoon don't have any apparent attraction and can't rustle up an ounce of chemistry.

The only main character with a faint pulse is August the ringleader, whom Waltz executes to a fine degree. Still, the film fails to define August as anything but the villain in this lopsided love triangle. This failure is a result of the weak script, which is chock-full of strange and unnecessary transition sequences that, in all honesty, could have been slashed without anyone being the wiser.

Much of the plot suffers from this self-indulgence. The pace is agonizingly slow and the run time could have been halved, if the writers hadn't stretched out the period between each major event to an excruciating length. The meat of the story doesn't materialize until more than halfway in. At that point, the director overindulges in grandiose scenery and all sense of urgency is lost. Not to mention, lines intended as heartfelt come off as awkward and pandering, due to the flat-line relationship between Jacob and Marlena.

Though the story is standard fare, the scenery transforms "Water for Elephants" into a visual stunner. The film captures the old glamour of the Depression-era circus, from the striped tents and vibrant costumes to the squalid sleeper cars and stark landscapes. The rough-and-tumble circus life will mesmerize audiences, more so than the predictable, packaged plot line. It's paired with a sparse yet gentle score that adds depth to character emotions and actions. The characters' motivations are otherwise impossible to discern.

Moreover, the narration by an older Jacob (Hal Holbrook) is simply a pleasure. Holbrook's is the only likable character, a man first seen outside a circus, waiting in the rain for a performance that has already come and gone. This Jacob has a stronger temperament, but is far more accessible. It's a subtle tug on the heartstrings when he refuses to go back to the retirement home because he needs to experience the "Most Spectacular Show" once more.

In spite of slightly painful acting, the film is enjoyable fluff and worth a watch, if only for period accuracy. Certainly, "Water for Elephants" is a tale of pure escapism. But it's a tale as alluring as the circus, a place where absurdity and beauty, hand in hand, bow to the audience.

"Water for Elephants" is rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. The film runs for 97 minutes and is now playing in theaters everywhere.

Sarah Harper. Sarah Harper loves blackberry pie, beach trips and Pushing Daisies. More »

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