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4 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Water for Elephants
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by Erik Childress

"False Advertising: There's Only One Elephant In The Film"
2 stars

For those of you unfamiliar with Sara Gruen's 2006 bestseller, a group which I must admit to being a part of until its film adaptation was put on my schedule, let's break it down to the bare minimum. Imagine a pretty-looking, but really boring version of Titanic set in the circus where the impending tragedy is not nearly as bad as they suggest and Billy Zane is the most interesting character in the love triangle. That description may not appease the supposed legion of loyal fans of Gruen's text, but if their idea of romance and passion is defined faithfully by the distant chemistry of the two underwritten protagonists here, then it goes without saying that such fans are already easily pleased.

In fictionalized Titanic fashion, we begin with an elderly version of one of the survivors (Hal Holbrook) who has returned to the scene of the crime. Or, at least, some modern equivalent of it. While he awaits his nursing home to track him down, he tells the story of his past to the circus manager who asks to hear the tale of "one of the most famous circus disasters of all time." Events were put in motion when young Jacob Jankowski (Twilight's Robert Pattinson), a promising veterinary student at Cornell loses his funding after a car accident takes his parents. Distraught he jumps a train that happens to be a part of the Benzini Bros. circus run by strict taskmaster, August (Christoph Waltz), who expects everyone under his employment to push their limits (especially the animals) so he can finally run down those darn Ringling Bros. in success.

August's star attraction might be his prized white horse, but it is actually his prized white wife, Marlena (Twilight's Reese Witherspoon). She is hinted at being a cold fish, but forms a bond with Jacob when he takes mercy on her injured center ring partner. August is less than pleased but still makes Jacob his top vet and keeps inviting him to be a third wheel during moments with his wife. Not the wisest of moves as Marlena and Jacob inch closer to each other's lips and we await for all hell to break loose under the big top world.

Not even Steve Perry and one of his power ballads would be enough to convince us to care about the fates of Jacob and Marlena though. The best thing that can be said about Pattinson's performance is that at least it looked like he showered for the role. Even worse is Witherspoon who inhabits Marlena with all the gravitas of a tourist playing dress-up to get a photo souvenir. Most shocking of all is the manner in which they are written by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese. No stranger to romantic adaptations such as Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County and Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer, the man who also gave us The Fisher King and Living Out Loud must have had so little to work with in Gruen's novel that even he could not possibly feign a fascination in these potentially star-crossed lovers. Either that or his attempts at highlighting man's relationship with the animal world, both physically and metaphorically, were completely stifled at director Francis Lawrence's inherit inability to craft drama - especially without the special effects of his previous stinkers, Constantine and I Am Legend.

Water For Elephants is entirely bereft from actual drama in its second and third acts. Neither Jacob nor Marlena are shown in having any particular arc with the exception of geography to their own bodies. Jacob may not qualify as a licensed pet doctor, but the movie barely even qualifies him in our eyes either. His two greatest contributions to their well-being is discovering that one is Polish and the other in lieu of treatment should just be shot. Which is roughly the diagnosis that you, myself or one of the Three Stooges would apply put into the same position of minimal authenticity. Marlena never comes to realize that her lot in life has been reduced to taming beasts (of all species) and so her motivations come down to trading in for a newer, cooler model. At least August (who has been promoted from head trainer to circus owner, replacing the book's Uncle Al) has some modicum of philosophy about life. It's a cruel and cynical one, but at least he has moments of the regretful abusive husband that show there is a person in there somewhere. If nothing else, Water For Elephants confirms Christoph Waltz as an actor who can command the screen even when the rest of the screen is under the influence of cough syrup.

This is a film that cannot even earn its place as some sugary sweet dalliance for teenage girls, who will likely be as restless as adults who can usually respect not rushing into a first kiss. By the time Pattinson and Witherspoon consummate their unlit wicks, they are left with less than a half-hour to navigate the consequences and still have time to experience what should be labeled as one of the most ill-conceived boss-revenge scenarios of the 20th century. Not only do the culprits fail to directly achieve their goal, but they managed to create a catastrophe that was liable to take out more civilians paying their salaries than the boss who has been throwing their friends off a moving train. How great a tragedy could it have been though when the death toll is ignored and the guy being told the story reacts to it with a big smile and another drink? That may be the same reaction we choose to Water For Elephants, wanting to laugh it off and deride everyone who tried to convince us that it was a bigger deal than it actually was.

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originally posted: 04/22/11 14:00:00
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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
4/27/11 J.messina Entertaining 3 stars
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  22-Apr-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 01-Nov-2011


  DVD: 01-Nov-2011

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