Water for Elephants (2011)

Water for Elephants is a lumbering pachyderm of a film, featuring none of the animalistic grit and/or danger of Sara Gruen’s novel of the same name. The 2011 movie is directed by Francis Lawrence and boasts a screenplay by The Fisher King scribe Richard LaGravenese, but the performances are bland and the overall product is an unenlightening, uninteresting snooze.

The major thrust of Water for Elephants isn’t so much to showcase Gruen’s best-selling novel or to even tell a tale about elephants in the circus, though. No, the point here is to give Robert Pattinson a star vehicle in which he can steer his career ever so gently away from the Twilight Saga and into the muck and mire of bland romantic, Notebooky tales from the past.

So here we find Pattinson as Jacob (!!), a Polish-American studying veterinary medicine at Cornell. He is about to take his final exam when it is revealed that his parents were killed in a car crash. His family has left him nothing but a pile of debt, so he does what anyone would do in such a situation and runs away from it all. Hitting a train, Jacob soon discovers that he’s joined a circus.

This thrusts him in a series of convenient situations. His training with animals enables him to become the circus’ vet. Jacob conflicts with the circus owner (Christoph Waltz) and is attracted to his wife (Reese Witherspoon). It is necessary that the circus owner is evil and mean to animals. You know the reason why, don’t you?

Much like The Notebook, Water for Elephants uses the old man archetype, in this case Hal Holbrook, as the framing device and narrator. The story begins with Holbrook arriving at a circus and striking up a conversation with an overly attentive circus proprietor. Holbrook gets to narrate for a few sentences but then is replaced by Pattinson’s voice as the younger Jacob curiously narrates his own life as it unfolds. This makes little sense.

Like most entries in this genre, Water for Elephants is insanely cheesy and saccharine in all the right places. There’s little chemistry between Witherspoon and Pattinson to back this approach up in any meaningful way and the menace that should be Waltz’s character isn’t able to materialize thanks to Pattinson’s inability to sell, well, anything as an actor.

Pattinson appears to have one tone: indifference. He is dull as a performer and only generates legitimate energy and emotion when he’s with the elephant. He isn’t a suitable rival for Waltz’s character and he’s not a suitable suitor for Witherspoon’s. He isn’t believable in the role in the slightest, but at least he doesn’t glitter in this one.

Waltz is the best bit of this picture, as you might expect. The glorious Nazi from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is given a role that is as clichéd as humanly possible, but he manages to hide a little something extra in his portrayal and that saves Water for Elephants from the trash heap – just slightly. His stroke of meanness in dealing with Witherspoon’s troubled Marlena is the best part of the film.

Unfortunately, Waltz can’t save what is a forgettable, boring, plodding film. As a showcase for Pattinson, it’s unconvincing. As a romantic period piece, it’s about what you’d expect. And as an adaptation of Gruen’s superior novel, it’s a trunkful of disappointment.

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