Movie #34: Water For Elephants

Whenever the circus is used as a backdrop, it’s always a kind of magical place. I guess that was even more so during the Great Depression of the 1930s (when this movie is set). Everyone was struggling and life was harsh. People needed to escape to something more exotic and sensational. Water For Elephants captures a bit of that magic, but mostly it takes a classic gangster-movie romance and places it in the eclectic circus context. Robert Pattinson (Edward from the Twilight saga) plays a young man whose life takes a bad turn when his parents die in a car accident, leaving him homeless, penniless, and unable to complete his education — he was studying to be a veterinarian at Cornell University. In forlorn desperation, he hops onto an open train (like people did in the 30s) and finds himself working in the circus. The Benzini Brothers circus is owned by August Rosenbluth (played by Christoph Waltz, from Inglorious Basterds), who is a somewhat tyrannical ring master — more like a mob boss, really. Ironically, while he is trying to reform circuses (getting rid of grifting and pickpocketing), he also has a group of thugs who will throw people out of a moving train (often to their deaths) if they aren’t worth keeping or get on his bad side. When Pattinson’s character Jacob Jankowski arrives, he’s almost chucked out as well if not for his vet training being useful for the circus. In the circus, Jacob meets the lovely Marlena (played by Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction and also the boss’s wife (predictable, no?). Since it is only Marlena’s animals (apparently) that need veterinary care, she and Jacob get closer, a bit too close (also predictable). August befriends Jacob as well, and despite his ignorance, a classic love triangle is formed. I’m no good at gangster movies, but aren’t these elements also found in many of them? Just trade ringmaster for mob boss, star attraction for lounge singer/gangster moll, light up the love triangle and watch the bullets fly. Anyway, the three leads did pretty good jobs and as the movie went on I was more and more engaged with their story (despite how cliche it was). Pattinson can play only a few modes: mumbly passivity, tongue-tied inaction, or poorly-suppressed rage. Thankfully, that is all that is required of him here. Witherspoon is also having a cake-walk with this role (maybe except for any animal-work and riding), it’s a performance she could have given in her sleep. For the most part she just has to look alluring. Waltz has a bit more of a challenge playing a polite quasi-psychopath, but he’s already established himself as someone who can do that well (maybe that’s why he got the part). He seems like the typical villain that you love to hate, and while it’s endlessly surprising how Jacob and Marlena aren’t better at hiding their feelings from August’s scanning eyes, I guess that’s maybe because they’re young and naive (especially Jacob) while he is older and more suspicious. Despite all these elements, this movie is not only a romance. A lot of time is spent with Jacob and Marlena, but there are other characters in the story as well (namely an elephant named Rosie). Despite sharing very little chemistry, we accept that since Pattinson and Witherspoon are both young and pretty, they naturally fall in love — the relationship doesn’t feel very deep. This movie takes a glossy, romantic perspective on the 30s, where characters are fuelled by a catalyst of desperation to make emotional decisions — this is definitely not The Grapes of Wrath. Their lives are easily tragic and the most important thing it seems that they can do is cling to hope, freedom, and love — the circus makes a great symbol for that. I’m not a huge fan of the sentimentality, but I guess I still enjoyed this movie. (3.5 out of 5)

34 down, 16 to go!

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