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Overall Rating
2.64

Awesome: 3.57%
Worth A Look: 21.43%
Average: 10.71%
Pretty Bad64.29%
Total Crap: 0%

4 reviews, 4 user ratings


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Water for Elephants
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Born In A Trunk, Dies In A Trunk"
2 stars

After a few minutes of watching the romantic melodrama "Water for Elephants," I began to have the distinctly odd feeling that I was already intimately familiar with the story that was unfolding even though it was obviously seeing it for the first time. Some of you may assume that I had read the 2006 best-seller by Sara Gruen but no, somehow that book never made it onto my reading list despite being a collection of notable tomes so broad in scope so as to include the autobiographies of both Mark Twain and Hal Needham. After a few more minutes, it finally dawned on me that what I was watching was apparently based on another best-seller of note, a little thing from noted art-house director James Cameron by the name of "Titanic." From the storyline that begins with a star-crossed romance and ends in a major calamity to the oddly familiar cast of characters to the narrative structure that frames the period story with modern-day scenes involving an old codger sharing long-winded tales about their good old days (and maybe a good old night or two), there are enough similarities between the two that if Cameron didn't already have pretty much all the money in the world, he could probably sue and make a pretty penny. The key difference, however, is that Cameron made a genuinely awe-inspiring cinematic epic (and don't give me any of that revisionist crap--you liked it too) that worked both as a touching romance and as a thrilling action spectacular while "Water for Elephants" proves itself to be arguably the silliest elephant-based tragedy to come along since the lonesome death of Chuckles the Clown.

The film opens in contemporary times on a dark and stormy night as a circus is packing up and getting ready to hit the road when a crotchety old man shows up out of nowhere. Although most circus folk would be content to dash off into the night and leave the old codger to the wild, one kindly worker (Paul Schneider) brings him in out of the rain, most likely because he recognized the coot as being none other than Hal Holbrook himself and perhaps hoped that he could get some Mark Twain or Deep Throat out of him or at least a few lines from "Fletch Lives." Alas, he is appearing under the guise of 93-year-old Jacob Jankowski, a former employee of the Benzini Brothers circus, a fly-by-night outfit that came to an end after what is described as the third most famous circus disaster in history in 1931, not long after he joined up with them. Back then, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) was a promising veterinary student at Cornell whose dreams of one day treating the animals of people who went to Harvard and Yale fell through when his parents are killed in a car accident on the day of his final exam and he discovers that they went into debt in order to finance his education. ("Perhaps if you hadn't gone to college, you'd still have a home" declaims the evil banker in a depiction that even Michael Moore might find to be over-the-top and unfair.) With nothing else to do and nowhere else to turn to, he hops the first train that comes along and inadvertently winds up running away with the circus. At first, this doesn't it well with August (Christoph Waltz), the show's owner, but when Jacob lets on about his veterinary knowledge, he decides to hire the kid on as the vet and even keeps around after the newcomer performs an unauthorized mercy killing on the show's four-legged star attraction.

This act of compassion is witnessed by the show's two-legged star attraction, animal rider Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and since they are the only two people in the entire outfit who don't appear to be breeding grounds for any number of unpleasant social ailments, an immediate attraction develops between the two. The catch, naturally, is that Marlena is August's wife and is therefore not to be trifled with in any way, shape or form. However, demonstrating a weird willingness to share his wife with others not seen since the old "Emmanuelle" movies with Sylvia Kristel, August keeps creating situations in which to bring the two of them together ranging from fancy dinners for three in which Jacob is provided with a fancy new tux of the kind always kept on hand by Depression-era circus folk to purchasing a used elephant named Rosie that Marlena will ride and Jacob will train as a last-ditch effort to lure audiences. The premiere performance of the new act goes badly and the sadistic August badly beats Rosie and threatens to do worse if things don't improve. Luckily, Jacob discovers that Rosie only understands Polish (I know this has the form of a joke but I am completely serious) and with the language barrier finally breached, the show becomes a success. Despite the newfound prosperity, August grows increasingly jealous of what he senses is developing between Marlena and Jacob and this kicks off a series of events that eventually leads to the aforementioned third most famous circus disaster of all time, though one that seems to have been put together by an exceptionally unimaginative focus group demanding a happy ending even though the material would seem to cry out for the exact opposite.

As you can surmise, "Water for Elephants" is the kind of overly bathetic melodrama that tries so hard in so many ways to move audiences to swoon over its tale of forbidden love that it starts off being borderline ridiculous and then quickly crosses said border. Having never read the novel upon which it is based, I cannot say for sure whether the majority of its flaws were inherent in the original source material or were shoehorned in later in an ill-fated to translate its delicate charms to the screen. At first, I largely assumed that it was the latter case as it so often turns out to be. Then I discovered that the screenplay was written by Richard La Gravenese, the crack writer of such delightful works as "The Fisher King" and "Living Out Loud" and, more importantly for the purposes of this discussion, the man who took arguably the single most unreadable best-selling book in the English language not featuring a professor of symbology from Harvard, the monstrosity known as "The Bridges of Madison County," and adapted it into a film so surprisingly touching and effective that it made the book look even lamer in retrospect. Clearly this is a man who knows how to turn crap into something resembling art but nothing of the delicate touch that he displayed in that case is on display here. Instead, he trots out every possible cliche that one could expect to find in a story of this sort--and even a few that you thought had been retired long ago--and trots them out without any sort of fresh twist and expects audiences to swallow them wholeheartedly. Outside of a few nice details early on in the proceedings involving the ins and outs of carnival life, the script is so devoid of personality that it feels as if it was written entirely by a screenplay software program featuring plenty of artificial intelligence but precious little of the real stuff.

If the hiring of La Gravenese to write the screenplay at least makes a little bit of sense in theory, the decision to bring in Francis Lawrence to direct the project smacks more of insanity than anything else. Put it this way--if you were in charge of producing an expensive period romance involving star-crossed lovers and whatnot, would you really think that the best person for the job was the guy whose two previous films were "Constatine" and "I Am Legend"? Hell, I am actually one of the few people who sort of dug "Constantine" for its non-stop lunacy and even I would have thought twice about bringing him in unless everyone else in the DGA directory outside of Zach Braff had already turned it down beforehand. It quickly becomes apparent that the guy has no feel for the material or the characters and he therefore completely fails at making viewers care about either in the same way that James Cameron did with "Titanic" and while you may think it is a bit unfair for me to continually hit him and the film over the head with those particular truncheons, it spends so much time trying to remind viewers of that one that such comparisons are inevitable and inevitably ill-fated. Even the one sequence in which you would think a director with Lawrence's particular skill-set for spectacle would thrive--the climactic circus disaster that we are primed to be expecting from the opening moments--comes off as cheap and cheesy by comparison. Despite being described as the third-worst circus disaster ever by one character, what we see is so absolutely devoid of bloodshed, carnage, tension, excitement and coherence that if what we see was truly meant to represent the third-worst circus disaster ever, then #2 must have been the box-office failure of "Carny," the weirdo 1980 sideshow melodrama featuring a love triangle involving the likes of Jodie Foster, Robbie Robertson and the redoubtable Gary Busey as the resident freak.

I mention "Carny" not only to once again demonstrate by ability to reference movies that most people have rightly forgotten over the years (even though I have a Buseyesque soft spot for it in my head) but to point of that as strange as a Foster-Robertson-Busey triangle may sound, especially nowadays, their efforts are far more convincing than what is turned in here. (Of course, one might rightly point out that I am stretching the reference for the sake of an easy jab since "Carny" is technically about a traveling carnival and not a circus proper--then again, since no one actually saw "Carny," I think I may be home free on this one as long as no one bothers to read any of the parentheticals.) To give Robert Pattinson a little bit of credit, he does get to do a little more here than he has so far in all that "Twilight" gibberish and manages to suggest that with a proper screenplay, he might have an actual future as an actor once his time as a teen idol wears down. Sadly, he doesn't have that proper screenplay here and spends most of his time looking sheepish about the lines he has to deliver. As for Reese Witherspoon, I bow to no one in my admiration for her talents as an actress but while she certainly looks cute as a button in her tiny sideshow outfits, the sad truth is that she is never convincing for a minute as Marlena--as she plays her, it is impossible to believe that such a person would ever set foot on the grounds of a circus as a customer, let alone as the main attraction. Luckily, Christoph Waltz manages to breathe life into his scenes to such a degree that even though he is the villain of the piece, most intelligent moviegoers will probably find themselves on his side simply because of the sheer force of his personality. If "Inglourious Basterds" announced the previously little-known actor to the world as a hugely talented performer, this film, in a weird way, actually confirms his talents because while it is one thing to come across as entertaining when working from a screenplay as brilliant as the one he had in "Inglourious Basterds," it is quite another to do so when working with material as weak as he has been given here.

It should be noted that despite the inherent suggestion of the title, "Water for Elephants" in fact only contains one (1) elephant and for the most part, the creature is more partial to whisky than to water. In other words, this is a clear-cut case of false advertising and if anyone is interested, I am seriously considering filing a class-action lawsuit against the filmmakers on those grounds that other disappointed viewers can feel free to join in on as well. The only catch, however, is that to become a part of the suit, you will actually have to sit through the film in its entirety and my guess is that for the vast majority of you--at least those with even a smidgen of taste and/or common sense, doing so simply won't be worth it in the end.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21330&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/22/11 13:00:00
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User Comments

5/18/12 Lois witherspoon and pattinson don't have chemistry!! Waltz is great as always! 3 stars
10/26/11 ashley rexrode such a beautiful movie. great actors 5 stars
5/06/11 PAUL SHORTT ENJOYABLE, WELL MADE DRAMA 3 stars
4/27/11 J.messina Entertaining 3 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  22-Apr-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 01-Nov-2011

UK
  N/A

Australia
  22-Apr-2011
  DVD: 01-Nov-2011




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