One of the most beloved and best selling romantic novels of recent years, Sara Gruen’s “Water For Elephants” has had a legion of fans and devotees waiting for this moment. The film adaptation – featuring acting heartthrob of the here and now, Robert Pattinson, alongside Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon as fated lovers Jacob and Marlena, has been anticipated since the casting decisions were announced. For Witherspoon, the film offers an opportunity to return to the heights of box office success and for Pattinson, “Water…” serves as his opportunity to take some necessary steps in leaving Edward Cullen and the “Twilight” franchise behind.
Many will know the story, but let’s play catch up the uninitiated. Narrated at the outset by a 90 year-old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) and set in the throes of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, “Water for Elephants” tells the story of Jacob (played by Pattinson in the younger role), a Cornell University veterinary student who must deal with the shocking and sudden death of his parents on the day of his finals. Unable to complete the steps necessary to graduate, Jacob learns that his parents gave away all rights to everything they own to fund his final years of college. With no money and nowhere to go, Jacob packs a suitcase and hops a train heading through town. After a rather rough introduction to some men he meets on the train, Jacob learns that he has boarded a circus train rolling on to its next town.The circus in question is the Benzini Brothers Traveling Circus, a competitor to the more popular and profitable Ringling Brothers Circus. Jacob is soon befriended by Camel (Jim Norton), a kindly older man who likes and wants to protect Jacob from being tossed from the train as a stowaway. Apparently August (Christoph Waltz), the animal trainer and proprietor of the traveling roadshow, has a certain habit of reducing staff in an effort to avoid and/or cut costs. His efforts generally lead to circus staffers never being seen again and disappearing quietly as the train rolls through the night.
At August’s side is his wife, the breathtaking Marlena (Witherspoon). Much younger than August, Marlena is unmistakably the featured attraction of the Benzini Brothers show. Marlena is loyal and supportive of her husband publicly, but is in a deeply troubled marriage behind-the-scenes as August is abusive not only to her and his staff, but also the animals he brings along for his show.
Jacob tweaks the details of his past a bit and informs August that since Ringling Brothers employs a full-time veterinarian that August should have one as well. Jacob convinces August to hire him and soon wins August over, becoming a trusted member of August’s inner circle of sorts. As August relies on Jacob more and more, both for covering up his abhorrent behaviors and keeping the show moving along by ensuring the animals are healthy, Marlena begins to fall for Jacob, who fell in love with her the moment he first saw her. As Marlena and Jacob fight the feelings growing inside for each other, they must also deal with the increasingly erratic and temperamental August, as the circus is perilously close to collapsing the tents for good.
For a rather simple love story set in the 1930’s circus world, there is a lot to chew on and think about here. Admittedly not having read the book, I am ill-prepared to speak on the transition from page to screen. What I will say is that I have the sense that those passionate about the book, the romance, and the story as written by Sara Gruen will enjoy moments of this tremendously. There is a folksy charm to the introduction Jacob has to the characters who allow him under the big top, and Camel’s connection as an almost father-like protector navigates Jacob through some dicey ups and downs.
Two performances in particular are captivating and worthy of praise. The inimitable Hal Holbrook, whose appearance in the film is written as a rather throwaway plot device, shines with his bookending role as the 90 year-old Jacob. His eyes tell so much more than Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation gives him on the page, and what words he does speak resonate long after the film is over.
I was also again reminded at how fantastic an actor Christoph Waltz is, portraying August as the manic, out-of-control, bottle-driven big top leader. Waltz, who won an Academy Award for his classic portrayal as the evil Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”, creates another nasty character from the inside out. Waltz delivers the film’s most memorable performance. Balancing anger, remorse, frustration, desperation, and sadness with a nuanced look, slight clinching of his jaw, or verbose arrogance, Waltz is simply outstanding.
The (not-so) metaphorical elephant in this room is that with so much going for it, naturally the romantic pulse of the piece lies with its leading actors, Pattinson and Witherspoon. And…I regret to report that they simply do not deliver what this film needs to achieve the grace and beauty fans of the book and those anticipating the film are waiting for.
The surprising lack of chemistry and romantic connection buckles significant portions of “Water for Elephants”. Although admittedly, many of the struggles emanate from a mundane and lackluster screenplay adaptation by Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You). While I sensed the attraction between the two and could buy into Jacob’s longing and desire for the woman he instantly recognized as being the woman he sees himself with for the rest of his life, there is no discernible spark anywhere.
Witherspoon is fetching and looks gorgeous throughout the film, but Pattinson just can’t find the emotional center that Holbrook captures in seconds. When the older Jacob starts to weep at the sheer sight of an old picture of Marlena, Holbrook tells you everything you could ever want to know about the importance and impression one true love can bring. For the rest of the film, you search Pattinson’s eyes, his looks, his expression and his mannerisms to see those same feelings, and it is just not there. Admittedly, some of the sweep and grandeur of the love story is muted by the film’s slow and measured narrative. To not have the two leads find the unrequited crush and connection that makes us believe in their passion may serve as the film’s downfall.
And it is an absolute shame that the passion is absent and the love story vacant of palpable emotion because the film is technically impressive and beautifully shot. Acclaimed cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) captures photographic quality in many of his shots and the film has an inherent beauty to it. James Newton Howard’s score is pitch-perfect for what is happening on screen and often Howard’s elegant music sways you emotionally, even when Jacob and Marlena and the film are slowly moving through their paces.
“Water For Elephants” is an emotional, old-fashioned romance brought forth to a modern era of filmmaking where the beauty and
eloquence stands in direct contrast with the love story being told. Ultimately, I am on the fence about recommending the film. I admired the behind-the-scenes work a great deal, appreciated what I was seeing, but really could not find myself caring at all about Jacob and Marlena’s love affair. Well…actually I did and it came when a 90-year old man, with a subtle smile, a furrowed brow, and a wistful tear said more to me in 5 minutes than Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon could generate in two hours. Somehow I don’t think that was the intent of “Water For Elephants.”