For those who sped and wept through Sara Gruen’s novel; a tale of making the most of the dastardly depression; you will not be disappointed because the movie adheres religiously to the printed scenario.
The fable is told in retrospect by an aged Jacob (a luminous performance by Hal Holbrook) revolving around young Jacob (played by handsome, but wooden Robert Pattison; “Vampire” Boy) whose fate has shunted him into the reality of joblessness, shared by millions in 1931. He is a veterinarian, without a license, who finds grunt work at the Benzini Circus where he encounters Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and the heroine, the true grit of the novel and film, Rosie, a fifty-three year old bilingual elephant in her prime.
Ms. Witherspoon as Marlena the blond bomb, has all the physical attributes demanded of her character but none of the fire, fury that should be exhibited by the bare- backed riding beauty, whose supposed sultriness inspires lust in every man’s gaze. Her teflon emotions, slide and glide into nothingness, leaving a fragile, coreless, pathetic soul; instead of the constant consumption of champagne a few beers might have added some salt, toughness, an Annie Oakley feisty spirit, to a character who deserves more than this benign, banal portrayal. I felt this more a directorial error than a negation of Ms. Witherspoon’s abilities.
Circus owner August, rivetingly imbued, with the genius of Christoph Waltz (Academy Award Winner, ”Inglorious Basterds”; as Col. Hans Landau; “he makes milk evil” stated a gifted friend); he is magnetic, ambushes every scene; every sentence targets and hits the jugular; his passion, glib intelligence lend credence and guts to the movie.
“Water For Elephants” is actually the plight of Rosie, a regal creature, awe-inspiring, reminiscent of her ancestors who visited nightmares of (if not actual) defeat upon Alexander the Great; the imaginative crux, the source of the novel’s success. She is majestic in her massiveness; painfully subdued, almost sublime when suffering; wicked in her wrath.
There is a mystical, cult-like fascination with the circus of old; nomadic, gypsy existence; the romance of the unknown, exacerbating defects, physical aberrations into marketable attractions. Where nature’s castoffs, shunned by the physically predictable, can gloat with pride, as they are paid by those who would normally turn away in abhorrence. Where animals imprisoned from their natural habitat, attract and repel captive audiences; where people take flight, defy gravity and soar like birds through the air, perchance to perish. Many of these attributes are missing in “Water for Elephants” but the final thirty minutes are breathlessly exciting and worthy of almost………
THREE STARS!!! (OUT OF FIVE)
Netflix choices for best circus movies are:
“Greatest Show on Earth” 1952, Jimmy Stewart
“Trapeze”, 1956, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster
“The Great Wallendas”, 1978, Lloyd Bridges