'Water for Elephants': Send in the Moans
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The pantheon of great movies about the circus remains unshaken by the release of "Water for Elephants," which I was in the unfortunate habit of referring to as "Like Water for Elephants" up until recently. I could lapse at any minute, is the only reason I bring it up. In any event, the news that "Elephants" does not disturb the pantheon of great circus movies begs the question "What ARE the great circus movies anyway?" Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" has the reputation of being one of the worst movies ever to win the Best Picture Academy Award, despite its amazing train-wreck set piece (as in the set piece depicts a train wreck, not that it is one) and the charming spectacle of Jimmy Stewart in sad-clown makeup. Then there's "Jumbo" (or is it "Billy Rose's Jumbo"?), which despite the fact of its having been a substantial hit in its time, whenever that was, has the distinction of being a film that no living person has actually seen, or will admit to seeing. Then there's "Circus World" -- what the hell is that? There's "Trapeze" with Burt Lancaster -- did you know he was a trained gymnast? -- and then there's the somewhat seamier "Carny" (Gary Busey and Robbie Robertson competing for the affections of Jodie Foster, whazzup?) and of course "Freaks," which isn't really a circus movie for people who actually like circuses, if you catch my drift ... I'm sorry, where were we?
Oh yes, I was saying that "Water for Elephants" is, in a sense, a circus movie, and I'm sure some might argue that it is indeed better than "The Greatest Show on Earth" (at 123 minutes, it's certainly trimmer than the two-and-a-half-hour DeMille white, um, elephant). That won't be the case for fans of Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart and train-wreck set pieces. Scripted by the stalwart Richard LaGravenese from a well-regarded (by people who regard that sort of thing) period-romance novel and directed with surpassing visual prettiness by Francis Lawrence, "Water for Elephants" is brisk and proportionate enough to sidestep the turgidity that often dogs such enterprises. Whether you think it's actually any good will depend, really, on whether you feel about stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon the way certain older moviegoers felt about Heston and Stewart. Or something.
A frame story featuring the always welcome Hal Holbrook sets the stage for a Depression-era adventure/romance, wherein young almost-veterinarian Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), his tidy striving world rocked by a family tragedy, hops what he believes to be a freight train that turns out to be the transport for the very down-at-its-heels Benzini Circus. Overseen by autocratic (and that's on good days) ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz, who I wish could get a part in an American movie that did not require him to pretty much reprise his U.S.-name-making role in "Inglourious Basterds"), it's a nasty, brutish operation, with rules enforced by a thuggish guy named Blackie and featuring toothless lions and various other abused animals. But still, it's the circus, and the glitter amid the sawdust and manure arrives in the beautiful form of horse rider Reese Witherspoon, who inconveniently enough is married to the brutish, brooding and reflexively jealous August.
And so there's your triangle, or rather, quadrangle, because into this mix comes a new circus star attraction: Rosie, an elephant reputed to be dumb but who is in fact one smart cookie, a quality which is discovered by young Mr. Jankowski in a manner I won't spoil here. While Jacob and Witherspoon's Marlene love the precious pachyderm, August prefers to manipulate the animal with the "bull hook," an instrument of cruelty that an elephant never forgets ...
Oh my, and now I'm making elephant's memory jokes. What can I tell you? You may have already inferred that my mind tended to wander during this picture, as interestingly old-school as its milieu is. Sometime during the first 20 minutes or so, I noted with enjoyment that it was kind of neat seeing a lot of '30s-movies tropes transposed with a Bruckheimer-esque aesthetic. But that wore thin after a while, as did Witherspoon's sexiness (confession: I've nursed a sick thing for the lady since "Cruel Intentions"). As I mentioned before, this film will work the most magic on those filmgoers who are besotted with its cast members, and the most besotting of its cast members is Mr. Pattinson of the "Twilight" movies. He exercises a better-than-passable American accent here, but otherwise is not particularly awe-inspiring in the thesping department. However, he doesn't have to be; he just has to look sensitive and/or smoldering -- give the "old ultry-sultry look" as Bullwinkle the Moose put it many years ago -- and he gets the job done. If basking in the simulacrum of his need-filled gaze is your bag, then by all means "Water for Elephants" should get your box-office dollar.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.