"To Talent and Illusion..."
"Jacob Jankowski, The Only"
Really, there's nothing too special about Water for Elephants, other than it's a well-told tale that doesn't treat its audience like they're idiots, showing you things that happen, rather than showing you and having some helpful person with a grasp of the obvious tell you what you're seeing. This is nice. And before the film goes South in its last third, it's a cut above your standard romance story. Told in flashback (the framing sequence features Hal Holbrook and Paul Schneider and I could've used a lot more of them), it's mostly a period piece set in 1931 during the days of Prohibition of a young veterinary student, Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), who must drop out due to circumstances of Fate. Without inheritance and no foreseeable future, he hitches a ride on a passing train and barely escapes being tossed off it.
In the morning, in a lovely shot that moves out of the freight car he's been sleeping in, he discovers he's hitched his way into the circus—the Berzini Brothers circus, specifically, a down-on-its-luck travelling menagerie of animals and people just one rung up from them trying to eke out an existence during the dark days of the Depression. He finds temporary work mucking out the cages but it isn't too long before his veterinary skills make him indispensable to the inscrutable owner August (Christoph Waltz, finally finding a project worthy of his talents) and his main attraction, a stunt equestrienne named Marlene (Reese Witherspoon, all platinum blonded and permed, almost resembling Madeline Kahn).
It doesn't take a genius to know where this is going, but director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend—the best parts of his movies seem to involve animals) manages to make it interesting before the romantic sub-plot kicks in. Until then, Water for Elephants is quite interesting in its portrayal of carny life amidst the human mis-fits. Things become very interesting when August, picking among the scraps of a dead circus—one of the many that are going broke during the hard economic times—finds his new star attraction, onto whose hide he pins all of the circus' economic hopes—a bull pachyderm named Rosie. Dismissed by its previous owner as being none-too-bright, it is Jankowski's job to take care of and train the elephant to become the star of the show, aided and abetted by Marlene. Where August is content to just beat the animal into compliance, Jankowski develops a bond with the beast, throwing him at odds with the ring-master and closer to the woman.
I remember working at a radio station in a small town when a circus set up stakes in the same parking lot of the local Montgomery Wards' the station perched on. Walking out the studios' back door led you straight to the holding area for the elephants and I would spend my lunch hours, watching them rock back and forth, their only restraint being a coil of rope around their foot and the memory of the chain that used to be there. I could never tell whether that huge elephant was content, bored or crazy, but I knew that it was huge, that it could have taken me out, and maybe the station and maybe the Monkey Ward's, given the time, inclination and a substantial telephone pole. But for now, it was content to watch me watching it, and swaying, forever swaying—something to do before the food arrived. Was it the elephant version of rocking in the corner, or was it dancing?
I thought about that elephant a lot during Water for Elephants and what was in its mind as I sat watching it while it watched me. I wondered where it is now and if it remembered the kid that sat contemplating it on those hot Summer days. Probably not. But, I remembered it, as well as a couple of the actors appearing in this movie that I'd worked with and admired (Good work on their parts, and I noted how they'd made something more of their small parts that didn't require the breadth of their talents—nice stuff, Scott and John). Everybody's good in it and I was amused that more attention seemed to be paid lighting Pattinson than Witherspoon—that might please his fan-base.
But, as I said...nothing too special, although there is solid work throughout, and not too unlike a circus—a pleasant diversion that manages to take you away from the real destruction going on in the real world.