At last night’s screening of the recently opened film ‘Water for Elephants’ (Now playing at Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14 and many other D.C. theaters), this reviewer noticed an abundance of young teenage girls. Their presence may not have been because of the subject material (a Depression-era circus drama) or even the source material (a 2006 best-selling book), but because of its star, Robert Pattinson, best known for the ‘Twilight’ film series. It’s hard to say if this is a movie they will like, both because it is an entirely different genre with no supernatural twists, and because Pattinson is not the most memorable aspect. General audiences, however, will probably have a better response, as this is a solid film.
The story is bookended with modern-day scenes involving the ninety-year-old Jacob Jankowski (played in these scenes by Hal Holbrook) arriving too late to see a circus, and telling of his background in this industry to a curious employee. The majority of the running time is this extended flashback, telling the tale of when Jacob, in his early twenties (played by Pattinson), lost everything in a tragic misfortune, and finds himself joining a traveling circus to make ends meet as the veterinarian for the performing animals, which he is able to do thanks to studying it in college. He quickly meets both the ringmaster & owner, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz, fresh off his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for ‘Inglourious Basterds’), and his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). It doesn’t take long for him to realize that August possesses a deep, mean streak that causes him to dangerously lash out at his animals, his employees, and his wife. To make matters worse, Marlena strikes up a friendship with Jacob that starts to develop into much more – even though both of them know that if August finds out, the results will be disastrous.
If ‘Water’ has a noticeable weakness to it, it’s in its protagonists. Pattinson and Witherspoon deliver decent performances and both characters come off as sympathetic and believable. But there isn’t a lot of depth to either of them – we learn both their backstories, but they don’t have any real quirks that make them especially memorable (Holbrook is given a shade of bitterness in the script as the older Jacob, which helps). The real star here is Waltz. Here, he does with August a lot of what he did with Hanz Landa from ‘Basterds’ – He convincingly plays a man who can be friendly, humorous, and likable one moment, and a horrific monster the next. While it would be a shame if this is the only type of character Waltz plays in the future, it is undeniable that he is very good at it. August is a captivating character to behold, and is what helps make the movie be above average.
The movie is also successful at creating a growing sense of tension. As things develop between our three stars and the lashing out begins, the feeling that things will end in disaster continues – and without spoiling the climax, boy, does it ever. By the time the end is reached, though, things feel a bit too tidy. While we do lose some likable supporting cast along the way, Jacob and Marlena’s fates afterward felt very clean and Hollywood, while everythng leading up to it feels like things won’t end too nicely. And yet, the ending is not distracting enough to ruin anything, and Holbrook’s final scene puts a nice cap on the whole story.
The critical split on ‘Water for Elephants’ has been interesting. Many critics have declared it one of their favorites of the year, while others have found it bland and uninteresting. This reviewer is not dead center in either camp. This is not a movie that will be discussed come the next Oscar season, but it is still quite entertaining and leaves you satisfied. If you think you can get past the ‘Twilight’ stink Pattinson carries for some, check it out sometime.