“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.
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