Water for Elephants – Review



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Strong story, mediocre chemistry

One imagines that if Robert Pattinson never imagined that Twilight would become as popular as it has. It’s easy to see that he would rather be an actor and do independent films rather than popcorn features designed to turn him into the latest tween crush de jour. Why?

Because he actually wants to be an actor and known for being one as opposed to being known for his looks or his relationships.

Water for Elephants is the sort of film one can tell Pattinson loves to do purely on his relatively high level performance. He plays Jacob, a young veterinary school dropout who finds his way onto a circus while hitching a ride on a train. Kept on by the circus master (Christoph Waltz) based on his veterinary background as the circus’s veterinarian, he finds himself falling in love with the star attraction (Reese Witherspoon) who just happens to be the circus master’s wife. As he finds his path through the power of the Depression era circus, Jacob discovers that things happen to be more than what they appear.

And considering we’re in an era of CGI and animation, it’s refreshing to see a film that takes pride in the practical effects and the spectacle of the old circus. That’s the film’s biggest standout is just how easy it is to get sucked into the splendor of the old time circus. There are also little things that the film does that are both interesting and impressive. When the circus master discusses how he bought the best of other circuses that have died, including their acts, it’s one thing but when they have little things like the names of other circuses (and mismatched colors) on the train cars it makes it seem like the Benzini Brothers have been scavengers for some time.

It’s a shame, really, because all the attention to the practical effects leaves one thing glaring: the lack of chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon. The film has a great love story about two people finding each other in an unlikely place but the two never really click with one another. They are quite good on the screen but they don’t have that sort of chemistry needed to make you feel that she would leave the only life she’s ever known for a shot at something more with him. It’s interesting to see Witherspoon have this issue in consecutive films, as How Do You Know suffered from the same problem with her and Paul Rudd.

With all the attention to Pattinson, Witherspoon and recent Oscar winner Waltz, the film’s genuine surprise is that of Hal Holbrook. The film’s opening and conclusion focus on him reflecting on his life in the circus gives the film an emotional heft it can’t sustain. Holbrook managed to bring a similarly powerful performance in a small role in Into the Wild and does the same here. Water for Elephants is a good film for story, et al, but there’s never chemistry amongst its leads and that kills a film that relies on it as a love story set in a circus.

Director: Francis Lawrence
Notable Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook
Writer(s): Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen

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