Monday, May 2, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

Water for Elephants is based on a bestselling novel by Sara Gruen that has been recommended to me on a handful of occasions. For all I know, it’s a good read. The movie adaptation scripted by Richard LaGravenese, however, is a total snooze. I felt myself leaning closer to the screen, trying desperately to connect with the movie and yet enjoyment stayed frustratingly out of reach. The story seemed to be of interest but the telling muddles it.

It’s an awfully pretty movie, though, featuring gorgeous cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto who has also contributed his skills to such other (better) pretty features as 25th Hour, Brokeback Mountain, and Broken Embraces. It’s also a fairly charming throwback, a circus picture, or to put it even more accurately, a run-away-and-join-the-circus picture. To get away with this narrative, the story is set in the Great Depression. Star Robert Pattinson plays a young man who drops out of college due to tragic circumstances within his family and hops the rails, ending up on a train carrying a circus from town to town.

This particular circus is struggling, but luckily Pattinson has just the skills necessary to help them out. He didn’t drop out of just any college; he dropped out of a veterinary program. This endears him to the abusive owner and ringmaster (the great Christoph Waltz) who hires him to take care of the menagerie of animals, including a difficult new acquisition in the form of an aging elephant. The trick rider in the circus is the owner’s younger wife (Reese Witherspoon), who grows to love the elephant almost as much as she does its new caretaker.

I thought this kind of Hollywood filmmaking had gone extinct after it peaked somewhere between Disney’s 1941 Dumbo and DeMille’s 1952 Oscar-winner The Greatest Show on Earth. This new film is a handsomely mounted romance set against the danger and spectacle of an equally extinct form of showbiz. They just don’t make the circus like they used to, which was dangerous and a bit of a rip-off. They just don’t make these kinds of movies anymore, either. I guess that Hollywood has forgotten how. Or more accurately, this specific collection of talent can’t make it work this time.

The stiff script buries its leads under its underwhelming leadenness. Pattinson, who has been stuck in the Twilight series, has yet to prove his acting chops and is given no help here. Witherspoon, without her typical bubbly charm, barely registers. Waltz, Hans Landa himself, is quite good but muted as the film’s source of menace. There’s a tepid love triangle that develops between the three of them, but it barely registers. It’s a plot that’s acted out rather than felt.

The blame here would have to fall to director Francis Lawrence. He can stage a good-looking film but he doesn’t do anything to elevate the script he’s given and doesn’t do much to help his cast navigate it. The film’s a bit of a departure for him, though, with his previous feature being the good 2007 Will-Smith-is-the-last-man-on-Earth thriller I Am Legend. In that case, Lawrence used a simple, gripping plot, created a nice tone and had basically one actor to work with. Here he has a larger cast and a duller script. It’s a film of pictures and moments rather than momentum and emotion. It wants to be a three-ring middlebrow melodrama but I could barely muster up one ring’s worth of interest.

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