Apr 21, 2011

REVIEW: Water For Elephants

Robert Pattinson can be a passive presence on screen, given to brooding, mooching, and sudden, slightly surprising bursts of pent-up emotion that come out of nowhere and leave you wondering why he didn't speak up sooner if he felt that strongly. The first Twilight movie exploited that passivity brilliantly, turning him into a icon of pale self-abnegation, smothering his instincts for fear of what they might do to his beloved Bella, although the sequels left him with perilously little to do, turning him into a Robert-Frost reading Romeo and roping him off from the action, leaving coffee-colored hunk Taylor Lautner to do the honors. He is not alone in this, for there is a streak of passivity running through many of the great screen lovers, from Valentino through to Warren Beatty, who communicates a fluting helplessness in the face of his own impulses — a man blown every which way by lust, like Wittgenstein's leaf. (Guy Pearce also got this in his recent portrayal of Monty Beragon in Todd Haynes's Mildred Pierce). Away from the embrace of Kristin Stewart in the Twilight movies, however, Pattinson has sorely wanted for a costar who gets his hesitant rhythms, so good news! In Francis Lawrence's Water for Elephants, Pattinson has found her — a costar who lights him up like a lightbulb. Admittedly, she weighs a tonne, has an elongated schnoz and tusks that could break a man in two, but they said the same thing about Streisand in the remake of A Star Is Born. There are some, too, who will insist that the real object of Pattinson's affections in Water For Elephants is in fact Reese Witherspoon but anyone who has seen this movie will recognise this for the poppycock it is. Pattinson plays a vetinary student named Jacob Jankowski — can't you already catch that whiff of vodka and borscht? — who in the first five minutes of the film loses both his parents in a car crash, hitches a ride on a passing freight train and falls in with a travelling circus, whose sadistic ringmaster (Christoph Waltz) is married to a Harlowish bareback rider named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) of the kind that men are always falling in love with in circus movies, and with whom Jacob is soon dancing cheek to cheek while Waltz snores, drunkenly in the corner. Given the sculptedness of both their cheekbones, this represents a considerable feat of engineering. Whether it amounts to good chemistry is another matter. Pattinson seems genuinely mystified by Witherspoon whose Tracey-Flicklike air of brisk, no-nonsense competence — she seems to be composing thank-you letters with every spare thought — is a million miles from the febrile melancholy that glued him and Kristen Stewart together. They seem almost a different species. Sia the elephant, on the other hand, actually is a different species but it doesn't seem to matter, as it didn't matter in the Twilight films. She plays an abused Pachyderm in urgent need of Pattinson's ministrations, and elicits some of his best acting to date: loose, spontaneous, tender, even — at one point — smiling. Big news, I guess: Garbo Laughs. It really is something to see that impassive masklike face cracked open by such a spontaneous show of feeling, as Sia gropes Pattinson's crotch with her trunk. "Is this how elephants flirt?" he asks. "Should I leave you two alone?" asks Witherspoon, a little nervously. Good question. Anyone who sees this film will, I think, be drawn to the conclusion, however reluctantly, that the cause of Love's Young Dream would be better served all round if Marlena made her excuses and left Jacob and his two-tonnes-of-fun to elope on the next train out of town, stethescope and trunk entwined. Sad to say, this does not come to pass, and it's back to slow-dancing with Witherspoon while his hand creeps up her back, and hers up his neck, at precisely directed increments: you can practically hear the director, Francis Lawrence barking orders through his megaphone. During the scene where they first kiss, in an alleyway, they manage to get there without once looking one other in the eye, like first cousins, or 12-year-olds in the school play wishing all this smoochy stuff were over. They're lucky they landed on the right lips. It's a handsome movie, though, beautifully shot with some great scenes of the train hurtling through the countryside at night — you can almost feel the temperature of the air — and Waltz is terrific as the circus master, switching between charm and sadism in that uniquely self-pleasuring way of his — when's he's charming, he's thinking of nothing else — so you're caught out every time. He makes acting seem an obscene act. C+


  1. Although your review is kinder than expected, the generally shrugworthy reception for this film would seem to support your thesis that Hollywood has failsafed itself against outright disasters. Ten years ago this one would have had all the earmarks of a "Gigli," a movie all but made for razzing. Now, the response is, "Oh, look, it's the vampire guy who can't act...and Reese...and an elephant...Meh." There's something depressing about a culture that can no longer work itself into a lather to loathe a movie hilariously and unfairly.

  2. I hear you, although I have to say that it they had had two leads with chemistry this film would have worked for me. Maybe Im a sucker for production design (it's Malick's man, Jack Fisk), but I was relieved to find a film able to summon a world into which I at least wanted to disappear. The trains at night had a lot to do with it. But Witherspoon and Pattinson are tight as clams around one another, and the framing narrative is a waste of time.

  3. I love this movie. It's amazingly beautiful. The costumes and sets are gorgeous, the cinematography is exquisite, the animals are cute...the director did great job..loving it :-)