“Water for Elephants” is told from the point of view of an older man. Looking back at the most important years of his life old Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) tells the story of how a 9000 pound pachyderm introduced him to his wife. At first I wondered why they bothered with this device. Other than giving us a chance to see Hal Holbrook, which is always welcome, it didn’t seem to add much to the story. Then I realized that the tale has a warm fuzzy kind of glow that is the result of being told from the point of view of memory and not reality.
Set during the Great Depression, the flashback part of the movie begins with veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Twilight’s Robert Pattinson) finding a job as a roustabout on the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus. On the job he meets Marlena, (Reese Witherspoon) a beautiful equestrian star married to August (Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz), an abusive animal trainer. He falls in love with her while tending to Rosie, the faltering circus’ 9,000 pound star attraction.
“Water for Elephants” has a decidedly old fashioned feel. The old time carnies speak like characters out of a John Steinbeck novel and the treatment of the animals clearly predates PETA. There’s a nostalgic glow to every frame of the film which helps cover up occasionally overwrought dialogue like Jacob’s summation of his first day as a circus hand: “The Benzini Brothers outdid God himself. They build heaven in one day.” It’s a bit melodramatic, but makes narrative sense when seen as the foggy recollections of an old man looking back at the single most important time of his life. Who hasn’t embellished a detail or two when retelling a story?
The movie’s occasional excesses are overshadowed by the winning cast. Reese Witherspoon looks like she was born to sit atop an elephant, R. Patz gets more action here than in all the Twilight movies combined and Christoph Waltz once again shows he was a way with cruel and unusual characters.
The only thing missing from Waltz’s bad guy performance here is his SS uniform from Inglourious Basterds. He really is becoming Hollywood’s guy we love to hate, and he’s good at being bad, but I’d like to see if he can do other things as well. Pattinson on the other hand proved to me that he can play something other than a lovesick vampire, which, the success of Twilight aside, is kind of limiting career wise.
“Water for Elephants” is an old school epic, or at least as close as we get to an old school epic these days. It’s a movie for adults, although they’ll probably have to fight their way through the crowds of teens who’ll line up to catch Robert Pattinson without his fake fangs in place.
For most people Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart will always be the undead Romeo and Juliet of the Twilight series. This weekend’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is their final bow as Bella and Edward, the last time we’ll have to enjoy them complete with fangs and dreams of eternal love in the horror Harlequin series.
While the vampire movies contain their best-known roles, both have worked to establish themselves outside the Twilight universe.
Robert Pattinson struggled before beating out 3,000 others to land the role of ninety-year-old vampire Edward Cullen. Labeled “the next Jude Law,” he had small roles in several films, including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but a movie planned as his big breakout was a disappointment.
Cast as Reese Witherspoon’s son in the 2004 drama Vanity Fair, his part was cut from the film for theatrical release. Not surprisingly it was reinserted on the DVD once he became a household name. What is surprising is seven years later he played Witherspoon’s lover in Water for Elephants.
Movies like the 9/11 drama Remember Me and the period piece Bel Ami haven’t yet erased memories of his “fantastically beautiful, sparkly vampire,” but he has five films lined up, including the thriller Hold on to Me opposite Oscar nominee Carey Muilligan, that he hopes will do the trick.
Best Post-Fang-Banger Role: Eric Packer, a twenty-eight-year old billionaire money manager in Cosmopolis. The claustrophobic feel of the movie places a great deal of emphasis on Pattinson and he takes advantage of the up-close-and-personal cinematography to deliver a tricky performance that uses stillness to mask the boiling rage that exists beneath his stony veneer.
Kristen Stewart came to Twilight with a resume. An actor since age eight, she had appeared in seventeen films before perfecting Bella Swan’s ennui-ridden eye roll. Despite saying, “I never wanted to be the center of attention,” she graduated from playing the “ring toss girl” in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas to substantial parts in Panic Room, opposite Jodie Foster, the Sean Penn-directed Into the Wild and headlining blockbusters like Snow White and the Huntsman.
Best Post Teen Angst Role: She brought her brooding Brando best to the role of Joan Jett in The Runaways, the true, tawdry tale of an underage all girl rock band—they billed themselves as “Genuine Jailbait”—spawned from the Sunset Strip’s late 1970s seedy underbelly.
The circus is a magical blend of drama, comedy, music and wonderful things you can’t see at home, unless, of course, you live next door to Bozo the Clown.
And that’s why filmmakers look to the Big Top for inspiration. It’s a naturally cinematic place with themes as flexible as sideshow contortionists who can touch their toes with the top of their heads. For instance, Charlie Chaplin mixed comedy and romance in his classic film The Circus, while Trapeze with Burt Lancaster is a three-ring tragedy and Ten Weeks with a Circus is strictly for kids.
This weekend, Water for Elephants, an historical drama starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, takes us backstage at the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
The most famous circus movie is probably The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille’s story of love, crime and clowns under the big top. Today the film—which was named one of the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made by the Golden Raspberry folks—is most notable for making Charlton Heston a star and as the first movie Steven Spielberg ever saw.
If DeMille’s movie is the most famous circus movie, then Freaks is certainly the most notorious. Set in the world of a funfair sideshow, it features a cast primarily made up of actual carnival performers—like Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman and Prince Randian a.k.a. the Human Torso—to tell the story of a beautiful trapeze artist who agrees to marry a deformed sideshow performer for his money. As a young man, director Tod Browning (who also helmed Dracula) had been a member of a travelling circus and that experience brought such a horrifying realism to the story that one woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage.
And speaking of sideshow attractions, these days Benicio Del Toro is known as a serious actor, an Academy Award winner who is sometimes jokingly been referred to as the “Spanish Brad Pitt.” That’s a long way from his first role, human oddity Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-wee. Despite earning reviews like, “If there’s a lower form of comedy than circus humor I’ve yet to encounter it,” star Paul Reubens once said that “Big Top Pee-wee is “at least as good as Police Academy.”