I pretty much blame my intolerance for foul odors and my general dislike for animals on my fear and dislike of circuses. Loud, noisy, smelly, and overly rowdy places they are. Particularly smelly. I was blessed, or cursed, with a very sensitive olfactory center and that has caused me to have a great set of feelings towards animals that bears no resemblance to “liking” them, barely even tolerating them. I think the only circus I have actually enjoyed was Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian frenzy that is an acrobatic heaven. But, I never went to Ringling Brothers or any of those traveling circuses.
With this in mind, my deep abhorrence for circuses and animals would serve as a test for the new film Water for Elephants, based upon the book of the same name by Sara Gruen. If this film could make me, well, enjoy a circus against my will and find some sort of magic in it, then I will have given it a passing grade. However, due to many of the “students’” lack of enthusiasm, I just wanted to kick them out and have done with them.
Trying hard as he might to pick out versatile and different roles to showcase his acting chops, Robert Pattinson plays Jacob Jarkowski, a guy who’s old now and telling the film through memory. On his way to graduating Cornell as a vet, his parents die, and he runs away. Walking somberly on the tracks, he jumps onto a train that houses an enormous circus act, with many of the various acts and animals on board. He’s looking for work, as all men on the road to nowhere are. So, they give him a day to see how he does, and he ends up shoveling manure. Yay! I have to say, my nose was absolutely thrilled to endure this scene.
He survives, lies about graduating to the ring leader, August (Christoph Waltz), and begins to serve as the circus’ vet. Diagnosing one of the animals with a terminal disease or something, he goes begins to fall for August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and shoots the horse, and yada yada yada.
As star crossed as this film is advertised to be, it’s quite misleading. Aren’t star crossed lovers supposed to have, you know, chemistry? That’s the biggest downfall of the film. The lack of chemistry between anyone, including the main actors and the animals they’re working with, is a heavy blow to the believability. Not even the conniving Waltz can salvage the film. Instead, he hams it up, in a weird attempt to recreate his Hans Landa in a completely inappropriate setting. Yes, August is a monster, but he is not a Nazi.
As I was saying, the plot is (kind of) heavily reliant on the chemistry of the two stars. When the two flirt back and forth, when they first meet, there’s supposed to be some sort of discernable spark that the audience believes. It’s not completely impossible to suspend belief for a ludicrous romance film; just look at The Notebook. (As much as I hate that movie, the stars did have chemistry.) Instead, we’re made to suffer as Pattison and Witherspoon struggle to keep their own interests and just spit out lines halfheartedly. It’s particularly painful to have to hear Witherspoon’s think as waif laugh when Pattinson does something “funny”. So, it isn’t very romantic. It’s really quite dull.
Meanwhile, Christoph Waltz, whose hammy yet brilliant role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is half-heartedly recreated for what would be appropriately deemed as a different character in a different environment. He seems to be neither cunning, nor sly, nor frightening. He comes off as a second rate Hans Landa. The lack of chemistry between he and Witherspoon is supposed to be laughably thin, but instead it’s just annoying and repetitive. Yes, we can see Witherspoon is clearly a trophy wife; but at least make that part believable. And as the chemistry withers between any and all actors, the best chemistry is seen between the actors in the background and their animals.
As I said, I’m not a huge fan of animals. And, several times throughout this movie, I felt like it was being funded by PETA or something (which is of course, impossible, since they hate the use of animals in any film whatsoever). Frequently illustrated are the cruel conditions that animals undergo when in a circus. Fed dirty and bad meat, abused to get them to walk, lions’ teeth pulled, etc. IT is with a heavy hand that this is shown. Not exactly to portray how bad August is as a leader, but it felt more like a general accusation and condemnation of animals in this trade at all and everyone who’s ever been in charge in these conditions. This doesn’t enhance any character development or understanding for that of August; instead it just feels really preachy.
And while the film was marketed as a romance of two people who could never be together because of a tyrannical Nazi, I mean ringleader, it’s much darker. Romance serves very little of the plot in comparison to its ad campaign. Instead, it’s more about the animals. Oh, they’re cute and clever and whatnot, but they are not what I paid to see. I think this case would be likened to when Tim Burton advertised Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a horror film, instead of as a Sondheim musical back in 2007. But, the thing is, it worked. The gothic and morbid comedy/horror aspect worked, because that’s how Burton designed the film. But this was clearly designed less as a love story and more of a dark runaway thriller life story. It only gets obnoxiously sentimental in a few parts.
With all of the negative things that can be spotted in this film, the one savior was the ending. I shan’t spoil it for you, but it was exciting, well-choreographed, and fantastically filmed. It’s basically what the entire film should have been.
Water for Elephants did not change my opinion on circuses. If it were possible, it kind of made me hate them more. Blah blah blah, treatment of animals, blah blah blah, star crossed lovers. I don’t care. A movie has failed when it fails to capture your empathy, your emotions, and your investment in characters. This film did none of that. I could not care less about its characters. It felt preachy and thrown together, with all the actors hamming it up so badly that I had more chemistry with my popcorn. This was certainly not the most spectacular show I’ve ever seen.