Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Water for Elephants" glossy, old-fashioned corn

Water for Elephants (2011)
122 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, including you Twi-hards out there, step right up to this adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-selling novel. It's "Water for Elephants," romantic-drama corn given the "Titanic"/"The Notebook" design but gloriously mounted and appealingly old-fashioned corn. 

Sleepy-eyed Robert Pattinson shows more color in his cheeks and expression in his face as Jacob Jankowski, a Great Depression-era veterinary student at Cornell about to take his final exams before losing his parents in a car accident. He hits the road penniless and hops aboard a train that belongs to the Benzini Brothers traveling circus. Yes, he runs away and joins the circus. Then once Jacob meets the star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who rides horse-back, he immediately falls for her, even if she's the wife of the circus owner, a cruel, abusive man named August (Christoph Waltz). After the star horse dies of disease, August invests in an elephant named Rosie (who understands Polish!) as the new animal star in hopes that she will bring in enough money to keep the circus alive. But will a forbidden romance, a controlling ringleader, and a beautiful pachyderm cultimate in "The Great Circus Disaster of 1931"? 

Directed by Francis Lawrence from a script by Richard LaGravenese, "Water for Elephants" is gauzy, satisfying entertainment but never achieves enough passion or emotional impact to believe the love triangle. Bookended with an old Jacob, poignantly played by Hal Holbrook, the wraparound framing device (and the golden-year-old actor) convince us of a life-changing relationship more than the actors playing the runaway and star attraction. And that's where the one (but not elephantine) problem with "Water for Elephants" lies. There's a little tension between the two, Pattinson shows a little escape from his broody typecasting cage, and Witherspoon is radiant as usual with the look of a Classic Hollywood bombshell. But neither actor has much of a character, beyond a backstory, to work with. 

Some of the colorful circus-freak characters fall out of the three-ring circus when they should've at least stood by the guardrails, especially Jacob's boozy mentor Camel (Jim Norton) and dwarf roommate Kinko (Mark Povinelli). As it goes for the circus act and the movie itself, Tai the well-trained elephant steals the show as Rosie: she's stubborn, gentle, helpful, and you can see her soul in her eyes. She ain't no CGI fool. Of Tai's human co-stars, Waltz is the most interesting to watch. No less insane than his Oscar-winning turn as the Nazi colonel in "Inglourious Basterds," he's deliciously volcanic if ever so broad as the heavy, shifting between savage cruelty, charm, and cartoonish villainy. 

Otherwise, from a technical aspect, "Water for Elephants" looks great, evoking both the period and circus atmosphere beautifully. Like the feeling you had as a kid attending the circus, Water for Elephants casts a magical spell on you, with or without the perfunctory romance.

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