Water for Elephants

Sometimes fate deals you a particularly cruel hand.  For instance, my father could create plans in his head and construct a building without blueprints.  He could pull the engine from a car, repair it, re-install it and have it running like new pretty much by himself.  This man who could plumb and wire a house with no formal training, the smartest, most capable man I have ever known, developed Alzheimer’s disease and, by the end of his life, couldn’t figure out how to operate a doorknob.  To me, that seems especially cruel.  The hero of this week’s movie, “Water for Elephants,” is also hammered by fate with tragedies and setbacks that seem like too much for one person to survive; but he is also delivered a unique and life-changing opportunity.

It’s 1931 at the beginning of the Great Depression.  Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) plans to follow in his Polish-immigrant father’s footsteps and be a veterinarian.  While taking his final exam at Cornell’s vet school, he’s called out of class and given the devastating news that both his parents have been killed in a car crash.  After their funerals, he’s informed the bank is foreclosing on the family home and the vet practice.  It seems both were mortgaged to pay for Jacob’s college education.  With no home, no diploma and no money, Jacob, like many people at the time, hits the open road looking for work.  Jacob hops a passing train, hoping for a free ride to another town when he’s set upon by the occupants of the car.  He’s jumped onto the Benzini Brothers circus train.  At first treated with suspicion and threats, an old circus hand named Camel (Jim Norton) takes the boy under his wing and shows him the ropes.  Camel also introduces Jacob to the circus’ owner, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz).  August at first plans to throw Jacob off at the next stop but Jacob, who earlier in the day has seen one of the performing horses with an injured leg, tells August that the animal won’t be walking in another few days.  Impressed with the boy’s spirit and in need of a vet, August gives Jacob a job.  He also introduces his new hire to his wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).  Marlena is the show’s star attraction and it’s her horse that is ailing.  Jacob is smitten with the beautiful Marlena, but August is not only her husband and Jacob’s boss, he’s also the dictator over all the circus folk with his own private police to keep people in line.  Performers often disappear as the train travels from one town to the next.  August has his men throw people who have crossed him from the moving train without regard to their safety.  With money difficult to come by, August decides to purchase an elephant named Rosie from another circus that has closed down, putting Jacob in charge of the animal’s care and training, as he thinks her addition in an act with Marlena will make the show a huge success.  August’s cruelty toward Marlena drives her to the arms of Jacob.  Can they survive August’s wrath?

I dreaded seeing “Water for Elephants.”  It’s the kind of film that most men wouldn’t choose to see on their own.  I have nothing against the actors or the novel written by Sara Gruen on which the film is based.  It’s just the whole notion of a Depression-era romantic melodrama looked about as entertaining to me as having a broken bone set by a doctor with the DT’s; however, I was wrong.  The film is quite entertaining and doesn’t dwell so much on the romance as it does the growth and experience of Robert Pattinson’s character.

Christoph Waltz is as good in this role as he was in the Oscar-winning performance in “Inglourious Basterds.”  Waltz gives August a charm that lulls you into thinking he possesses a level of sophistication.  His shifts into anger and cruelty occur in an instant and you can see just how evil this man can be.  Despite his cruelty, August is a character that you want to like.  He’s trying to scrape out a living during impossible economic times and is trying to find his share of the American Dream; however, his tactics and willingness to hurt people and animals make him impossible to consider as anything but a monster.

Unfortunately, the other actors don’t come off quite as impressive as Waltz.  Reese Witherspoon is radiant as Marlena, but her acting is rather flat and her character seems far too passive until the moment when the story requires that she stand up for herself.  While this is the best work I’ve seen from Robert Pattinson, most of his performance consists of crinkly-eyed smiles and smoldering but blank stares.  While Jacob bears little resemblance to Pattinson’s better known role as the sparkly vampire Edward from the “Twilight” series, there are some rather unmistakable similarities in his performance.

Despite my reservations, “Water for Elephants” is entertaining, interesting and moves at a pace to keep your mind from wandering to what you’ll have to eat following the movie.  It also has a nice bit of work from Hal Holbrook as the elderly version of Jacob.

“Water for Elephants” is rated PG 13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.  There are a couple of fights that leave characters cut and bloody.  We see the aftermath of two people who are thrown off the moving train onto some rocks.  The elephant is beaten and poked with a heavy stick that has a metal, pointed end.  The sexual content includes a brief view of some photos of partially covered naked women.  We also see a striptease in one of the midway shows.  No naughty bits are exposed on screen.  There is also a sex scene that has no nudity.

“Water for Elephants” tells a story of overcoming personal tragedy and threats against one’s safety while still maintaining humanity and dignity.  It also is an antidote for films with mindless violence and humor that appeals to the lowest common denominator.  Usually, this kind of film doesn’t interest me in the least.  Perhaps I should be willing to take a few more chances.

“Water for Elephants” gets a surprised four guitars out of five.

Two sequels and a teen-themed Disney flick are on the agenda at your local multiplex this week.  Vote the film you’d like me to review.

Fast Five—Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Dwayne Johnson get behind the wheel in the latest installment of the blockbuster auto action series.

Hoodwinked Too:  Hood vs. Evil—A teenage Red Riding Hood is called upon by a covert agency to investigate the disappearance of Hansel and Gretel.

Prom—A group of teenagers find their lives intersecting and their futures taking shape as they prepare for the biggest night of high school.

Stan’s Choice—Stan see and reviews any film currently in theatres.

Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.

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