Water for Elephants begins like so many romances do. An old timer (this time a man) recounts his younger days when he met and fell in love with the love of his life. He tells his story to an overly eager personality who hangs on every word he says and is kind enough to spare a few hours of his life to listen. It’s not a bad beginning (despite unnecessary expositional dialogue that essentially spoils the ending, leaving no question as to whether it will end in happiness or tragedy), but it is starting to feel overused. All it does is remind us that we’ve seen this all before in other superior films (like Titanic, for instance). Water for Elephants is not great, but few movies are. At least this one is still worth seeing (barely).
The old timer in question is named Jacob (Hal Holbrook), who has more or less run away from his nursing home and is looking for a position at a circus that is traveling through his town. When he gets there, he spots a picture of the girl he fell in love with, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and begins to reminisce about his days as a young chap (younger version played by Robert Pattinson). He was a Cornell student and on the verge of graduating when his parents were suddenly killed in a car crash. Because of certain circumstances, he lost everything and before he knew it, he was walking the lonely railroad tracks. After some time, a train passed and he jumped aboard, quickly realizing he just jumped on the traveling Benzini Bros. Circus train. Thanks to his studies in veterinary sciences, he was hired by the owner, August (Christoph Waltz), as the animal doctor. It was on this journey that he met and became smitten with Marlena, the owner’s wife.
And the owner is not the friendly type. I guess. August is made to be the obligatory bad guy, but it feels forced. He’s the type of guy who threatens punishment if Jacob doesn’t follow his orders, but then approves of the contradictory choices Jacob makes. He certainly has a mean side to him, but he’s actually kind of charming at times. His character flips personalities so much you don’t know how to receive him: as the hardnosed, no nonsense, my-way-or-the-highway boss man or a generally pleasant guy with an anger issue. By the end, the answer is clear, but it’s a poor juggling act up to that point and it made me care little about what was happening one way or the other.
This lack of caring carries over to the romance, which is incredibly underdeveloped, to the point of wondering what the point was of making the movie. To go into why the romance is left only half finished would constitute spoilers, so I’ll refrain, but what happens near the end doesn’t feel wholly earned. Part of this, however, may be due to the two leads, who simply do not look good together. The 10+ year age difference between the two is distracting and makes it feel like Witherspoon and Pattinson were put together because of their names rather than because of their chemistry (which is non-existent).
Considering the ridiculous ending that works the absurdity on a number of levels, I find myself questioning why I’m recommending Water for Elephants. The answer is easy: the art direction and performances are fantastic. This is a great movie to watch, even though the story is not a great one to experience. As easy as it is to dismiss Robert Pattinson based on his poor choice of roles in movies like Twilight and Remember Me, it would be doing a disservice to his abilities as an actor. He and Witherspoon may have failed to create a romantic spark, but that’s more a problem of the casting director and is not indicative of how good they can be when separated. Similarly, Christoph Waltz delivers a knock-out performance in spite of his character’s poor narrative evolution, proving that his Oscar winning performance in Inglourious Basterds was not a fluke.
The more I think about it, the more I want to say Water for Elephants is not a good movie, but it is, just less so than I originally thought (much less so). It doesn’t work as a romance, but it works in other ways. So even though you aren’t getting the moving love story you hoped for, you’re still seeing a visually spectacular treat. It’s probably going to work more for nerds (like me) who care about that sort of thing. Those who don’t will likely find themselves staring at their watches wondering when this overlong bore will end. To those people, I say skip it. You know who you are.
Water for Elephants receives 2.5/5