Water for Elephants

Circus boy

As soon as you realize that the ringmaster barking out his greatest-show-on-earth spiel under the big-top tent is none other than Christoph Waltz, of all people, you begin to worry. You worry for Robert Pattinson. Waltz, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the silky SS officer in Inglourious Basterds, is an actor of juicy resources—he operates expertly in an area just this side of hambone—and he commands our attention. Pattinson, on the other hand, despite the stardom he has attained in the Twilight movies, is among the least commanding of performers—in some of the films he’s made outside of the sheltering Twilight umbrella, he fades from memory even as you’re watching him.

And so, sure enough, in Water for Elephants, a circus picture of which Pattinson is nominally the star, every time Waltz enters a scene, deploying his skittery intelligence and unsettling leer, Pattinson is reduced to the role of unhappy observer at an acting master class.

It’s not a good movie, but it’s not an especially awful one, either. It’s just long and dull. (When was the last time a story about running away with a circus gunned anybody’s engine?) The picture was adapted from a book by Sara Gruen—one of those worldwide bestsellers that nobody you know seems to have read. The filmmakers—director Francis Lawrence, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who shot Brokeback Mountain and Biutiful)—have done what they can with the material, but the movie feels like a forced march.

The story is set in 1931, in the depths of the Depression. Pattinson plays Jacob, a son of Polish immigrants who’s studying veterinary medicine at Cornell University. When his parents die—penniless, it turns out—Jacob is forced to leave school; and when the bank repossesses his family home, he hits the road with a sad little suitcase. Walking down some railroad tracks one night, he hears a train approaching. As it roars by, he hops onboard, and finds himself in the traveling headquarters of the Benzini Brothers Circus. Looking back in an unfortunate philosophical moment, he says, “I don’t know if I picked that train, or that train picked me.”

Jacob naturally insinuates himself into this itinerant carny world. He starts out shoveling the manure provided in abundance by the company’s menagerie of lions, tigers, giraffes and hyenas. He bonds with the resident roustabouts, dwarves, and midway coochie dancers. Soon he wins the approval of the smiling but cruel circus owner, August (Waltz), and the amorous interest of August’s wife and featured equestrienne, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, appealing as always, but starved of chemistry opposite Pattinson). When Marlena’s lead stallion falls ill, Jacob diagnoses its affliction as fatal and humanely dispatches it. (“I’m a vet,” he lies. “It’s my decision.”) August is furious about this, but then has an idea. He replaces Marlena’s deceased steed with an elephant. (To which Marlena responds, pricelessly: “I’ve never been on top of an elephant in my life!”)

The elephant, Rosie by name, turns out to be a wayward beast, no matter how much August tries to beat it into submission. Then Jacob makes an amazing discovery: Rosie is difficult to train because…she only understands Polish! And so does Jacob, of course. Problem solved.

We know that the earnest—or at least po-faced—Jacob must soon come into conflict with August, a man who says things like, “The rules of these United States of Suckers don’t apply to us.” And we know that big trouble is on the way after August spots Jacob and Marlena kissing one night. Can these two somehow find a way to be together beyond his possessive reach? Where could they go? And, given their employment resumes, what would they live on? Jacob is unfazed: “We’ll make our way to Ithaca, I’ll call my dean, get my degree.…” Or maybe just run away with a more interesting circus.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published next January by St. Martin’s Press.

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  • ||

    Robert Pattinson + Reese Witherspoon = zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • ||

    Francis Lawrence directed I Am Legend. That's not just zzzzzzzzzzzz, that's full on suck.

  • ||

    Book's good. And Omega Man entertained me.

  • ||

    Water for Elephants? That book was good? Dead to me, ProGLib. You are dead to me.

  • OperaNerd1986||

    I think Pro Libertate was talking about the book I Am Legend, not Water for Elephants.

  • PG||

    I love how all of these comments were written prematurely before the movie was released. Anyone making a comment before 12:01am 4/22/11 isn't worth a nickel because the movie wasn't out.

    Like Roger Ebert said about critics like Loder, they spent time trying to slam Robert instead of looking at the movie. What Loder wrote was based upon the press release of Fox. He adds nothing. So what was he looking at when he saw the film? Just insults to write about Robert.

    What Loder and the critics found out with their hack jobs of movie critiques was that the audience loves the film and all it's 1930's glory.

    Every fan review site, Yahoo, Rotten Tomatoes have the fans ABSOLUTELY LOVING this film.

    Now let's talk about the audience: The audience ranges from children to senior citizens! Everyone is seeing this film. The box office has done outstanding this weekend.

    I personally listened to senior citizens and not teenagers actually praise Rob for the job he did in the movie. The audience believes in the chemistry between all three actors.

    Everyone is tweeting and writing on blogs how the audiences across the country are cheering and clapping for the movie in theaters.

    So what was Loder and the other hack movie critics watching? It definitely wasn't this movie. So what was their agenda? To have a predetermined opinion about what Robert did in the movie. It's like all of the hacks had their nasty comments pre-written and just plugged in Fox's press release to cover the rest of the review.

    I actually saw nothing about the secondary actors and what they brought to the movie. What about Walter, Camel and Barbara? Nothing...crickets. These characters were an important part in the story and influences on Jacob. What was Rob's interaction with them.

    This review is lazy and only had one agenda: To try to make Robert look bad.

    But the fans are speaking and they're telling these critics to back off! The movie is really good. All of the actors are excellent.

    So those of you who commented on the movie which none of you even saw are full of just as much BS as Loder!

  • Paul||

    Is this the sequel to Like Water for Chocolate?

  •  ||


  • The Man||

    At the risk of offending people who really like parenthetical remarks, I merely note that this review contains only seven parenthetical remarks. This is an improvement on the review of Arthur which contained 14.

    And this isn't probably one of the most idiotic posts you have ever read Tim.

  • Paul||

    I agree (not that there's anything wrong with that).

  • ||

    "When was the last time a story about running away with a circus gunned anybody’s engine?"

    I think that would be the HBO series "Carnivàle". It wasn't as good as it could have been, but it had excellent moments.

    A circus film could be huge, but no one's yet dared to make the circus movie everyone wants to see (even if they don't know it yet).

    That movie is the film adaptation of "Geek Love", with Elijah Wood starring as Arturo.

    If I was in Hollywood, and I could make any movie I wanted--that would be the first movie I'd make.

    "Geek Love" starring Elijah Wood.

    Book it.


  • ||

    I'd make a movie about Marty "Mr Asia" Johnstone.

    If it was a sci-fi movie it'd Fincher's proposed Rendezvous with Rama adaption. On one condition: real sets. A minimum of green screen.

  • ||


  • iamtheeviltwin||

    I just can't believe they are working on a sequel...

  • ||

    What about Diaspora by Greg Egan. When I read it I thought it would make a cool movie.

  • ||

    One movie?

    Snow Crash. Not sure who I would cast as Mr. Protagonist, though.

    That is all.

  • ||

    When I first glimpsed at the pic for the article I thought it was Jonesy, and not that Naatzi basterd.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    HBO's Carnivale was the first thing I thought of too. Generally got mixed reviews, but I liked it well enough. Nice southern goth vibe.

  • Scruffy Nerd Herder||

    I've read "Geek Love". You are a demented man for suggesting a film version. It would make Browning's "Freaks" look downright mundane.

  • Neu Mejican||

    A circus film could be huge, but no one's yet dared to make the circus movie everyone wants to see (even if they don't know it yet).

    Where's the love for Santa Sangre?

  • yonemoto||

    well, at least they are better than friday funnies.

  • Warty||

    Der Humpink!

  • Democrat||

    God. Do you guys remember Reese Witherspoon in Cruel Intentions, Election, and S.F.W.? Had a super-crush for a while, I remember it well.

    Robert just isn't a very good actor, and Twilight sucked. It just blew. And Witherspoon's losing it, too, in both the appearance and talent department. Sucks.

  • rather ||

    I wrote about a kick-ass performer and two idiots

  • Orgazmo the Flying Chimp||

    go make me a sammich

  • rather ||

    I'll make you a sammich when you earn it bitch!

    Now get on your fucking cop outfit and get your ass to bed-I need to be searched

  • ||

    I just read the book and have really tried to not see any of the movie trailers.

    The book really was very good.

    Deciding to do a movie adaptation is where the ship started sinking. Asking Robert Pattinson to play Jacob was where the ship sunk. He just doesn't have the depth, and Reese Witherspoon? Meh.

    I won't see it. It's the first novel not in the Fantasy genre that has pulled me in since I Know This Much is True. I don't want to ruin it with mediocre actors and Hollywood.


  • ||

    I agree ... the book was excellent, one of the best I've read in years. I loved the ending. Do yourself a favor: read the book, skip the movie.

  • converse pas cher||

    Rosie is difficult to train because…she only understands Polish! And so does Jacob, of course. Problem solved.

  • Oscars||

    It’s just long and dull

    That's how we like 'em.

  • Fat Crack Ho||

    Unless it ends with Jacob getting a swastika carved into his forehead, I'll likely find this movie as dull as Kurt Loder did.

  • ||

    The love interest should be between Witherspoon and the elephant. A girl and an elephant. Of course, the sex between Witherspoon and elephant could be difficult and painful...as the elephant only speaks Polish.

    And of course, to be modern, there should be a side story of the love that dare not speak its name: Yup, I'm talking dwarf and bearded lady orgies.

  • Fat Crack Ho||

    Since the elephant in this movie is female, I don't think the lovin' would present the mechanical difficulties you're worried about. Mostly just trunks and fists.

  • Scruffy Nerd Herder||

    Now that's some good spoofing

  • Confederal_Republic_by_2030||

    These are all the parts of the movie I liked -


    That's the list of the parts of the movie I liked.

  • Fat Crack Ho||

    My hard-earned money is going to 'Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family' this weekend. I'm worried it's going to be loud in that theater, though.

    Just sayin!

  • ||

    Tritely precious book that was written to be a mediocre movie. Glad to see it fulfilling its destiny.

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