Water for Elephants
dir Francis Lawrence
scr Richard LaGravenese
prd Gil Netter, Erwin Stoff, Andrew R Tennenbaum
with Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Jim Norton, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Stephen Monroe Taylor, Donna W Scott, Scott MacDonald, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, James Frain
release US 22.Apr.11, UK 4.May.11
11/US Fox 1h55

Water for Elephants
The handsome interloper: Waltz, Pattinson and Witherspoon

holbrook schneider frain
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Water for Elephants With a heavy dose of gold-hued nostalgia, this Depression-era drama works overtime to generate big romantic emotions. But the characters aren't quite interesting enough to really grab our sympathy. Besides the elephant.

On the verge of receiving his veterinary degree in 1931, Jacob (Pattinson) is left homeless by his parents' sudden death. Wandering aimlessly, he stumbles into the Benzini Brothers Circus and convinces gruff boss August (Waltz) to give him a shot. Soon he's training the new star Rosie, an elephant that will perform with August's wife Marlena (Witherspoon). There's a clear spark between Jacob and Marlena, who know better than to act on it due to Jacob's hot temper. Sure enough, he grows insanely jealous, and with the circus on a financial knife-edge, real trouble is brewing.

The story is bookended by modern-day sequences as a very old Jacob (Holbrook) tells his story to a younger circus worker (Schneider), seemingly in a tenuous attempt to link the Great Depression with our own Great Recession. But this kind of takes away a level of suspense, as Jacob is constantly threatened with death or injury by August's goons, who are throwing people off the moving train in the middle of the night to lighten the payroll.

And it also doesn't help that Jacob isn't very interesting. Pattinson can make him moody and handsome, but he really needs to find a role that has some personality, because this is yet another charisma-free character. His only defining feature is compassion, which is only there to contrast with August's relentless cruelty. At least Waltz adds some life behind August's eyes, suggesting a complex man beyond the script's one-note villain.

Witherspoon is also more engaging, simply because she has a bit of spark, but her character is so passive that she feels more like a supporting figure than the leading lady. And none of this is helped by the twee, magical tone director Lawrence establishes from the start, with James Newton Howard's syrupy score insistently telling us how wondrous this all is. It looks lovely, but completely lacks even a hint of real-life edge. And in the end, Rosie is the only character we care about.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 27.Apr.11

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© 2011 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall