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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants  (Three Stars)
U.S.: Francis Lawrence, 2011

Water for Elephants is an old-fashioned romantic picture done in new-fangled ways, and it‘s so good for such a long time, that it seems a shame, at the end, to feel so let down by it.

But that’s how it goes… Director Francis Lawrence’s show, co-starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz as an incendiary circus triangle — takes place in the Depression, in the ‘30s, in a flashback, in a circus, on a train or under the big top. And it’s a movie awash in memory, about the romance of the circus: about the circus as the canvas-tent palace of dreams. It‘s fitting, in a way, that this movie is set in 1931, when America’s illusions were being progressively stripped away…

It’s the Depression. The country is poor. (Hell, the whole damned world is poor.) The rich ran wild and stole from the rest of us and they stole from each other — like a lot of them do now. And suddenly it’s gone: all that money, all those dreams, everything. It’s 1931, and the country is in the crapper. Life kills the ones you love and makes you an orphan and steals all your dreams and throws you out on you keester. God damn, life can be brutal!

So what do you do? You run away and catch a train. You run away and join the circus. That’s where dreams are manufactured, where dreams are up for sale.

Hurry! Hurry! Step right up! See the tattooed lady! See the fat lady! The strong man! The chicken lady! The Siamese twins! The monkey man! The dancing lady! Dreams and freaks are behind that curtain for the price of one thin dime. The tenth part of a dollar.

Ladies and gentleman, your attention please! High above us, daring death: The trapeze artists! To your right, the lions! The tigers! To your left, the bears! The clowns! In the center ring: The beautiful blonde girl, in tights, on a prancing white horse! And, eventually, an elephant or two!

But it’s an illusion. The ringmaster is married to the blonde girl in white tights, and he’s a psycho! He’ll kill you if you touch her — and God, she looks like she wants to be touched. The old circus workers get sick and die or they’re thrown off the train. A nightmare. But the elephant, the elephant…He’s huge and gray and beautiful and solemn, and he understands Polish, and he has wonderful, watchful elephant eyes and an agile trunk.

You know where we are: We’re in the land of flashbacks, the land of dreams. The land of the movies…

The best of Water for Elephants – directed by Lawrence (maker of I Am Legend, that 2007 Richard Matheson science fiction horror shocker beloved of Ben Lyons), and scripted by writer Richard LaGravenese (of The Fisher King and The Bridges of Madison County) from a romantic bestseller by Sara Gruen — recalls the ways movies can transport us into visions of the past, and into the ways we want life to be: in this case, a portrayal of the circus world in Depression times as an empire of escape and illusion, a dreamland of sawdust and tinsel. It’s a domain as poor and dangerous perhaps, as the economically shattered post-crash world around it, and as tawdry and fake. But it’s also somehow lovelier and dreamier.

The worst of it though, reminds us of how compromised and awash in clichés and phony glamour movies too often are.

Centering around those three movie star circus people above and an elephant named Rosie (played by the amazingly photogenic Tai) it’s a triangle drama — with Pattinson, the melancholy hunk of Twilight, as an idealistic veterinary student who runs away and (accidentally) joins the circus; Witherspoon as Marlena (Dietrich reference?) the lovely, sexy blonde bareback rider he goes crazy for; and Waltz as August, the circus’s brutal and egocentric Ubermensch boss, also its master of ceremonies and, unfortunately for Jacob, also Marlena’s husband, and the young vet’s bad, volatile nemesis.

The movie’s story is as simple as a fairytale, which, in many ways it is: a fairytale disguised as a period drama. Sometime somewhat near the present, an old man of 93 or so, Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), is found wandering in a nearly empty circus at nightfall. The young circus employee who finds him, Charlie (Paul Schneider) is about to return him to where he thinks Jacob came from — the old folks’ home — when his interest is piqued by Jacob’s mention of his onetime circus background and his witnessing of a famous circus catastrophe from many decades ago.

Most of the rest of the movie is Jacob’s story, narrated at first by Holbrook (who should have done it all) and then by Pattinson as the young Jacob — a young man in 1931 with a seemingly promising future (and a hot date), whose imminent graduation from Cornell veterinary college is interrupted by his parents’ sudden death by car accident, and the revelation that they’ve lost all their money, and their home (to the bank of course), because they sacrificed everything to finance Jacob’s education.

Abandoning college, heartsore, without a dime (probably), Jacob hits the road. But the first train he hops turns out to be not a freight car full of hobos, but the circus train of Benzini Brothers, a cheaper, sleazier rival of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. Thanks to an old man who likes him, named Camel (Jim Norton), Jacob gets a job, shoveling manure. And the revelation that he‘s been at Cornell and knows animal medicine, prompts his employment by the glib, seductive and very mean circus king August (another inglorious bastard played by Christoph Waltz).

The story of Water for Elephants plays out in the obvious way — which is what a lot of us may want it to do. Young Jacob meets the beautiful bareback rider Marlena (Witherspoon) , falls in love, and gradually drives August insane with jealousy. All the while, we’re aware of that famous catastrophe to come, and aware also that it probably involves the movie’s elephant, Rosie (Tai), the new circus star picked up after the previous big animal star, Marlena‘s horse, has to be put down by Jacob because of a leg injury. (August wanted to work the injured horse for even more shows and loot, despite the animal’s awful pain.)

What LaGravenese gives us is a triangle, and a typical Depression movie triangle at that, with prototypical roles. The young poor guy with lots of dreams and maybe a brilliant future, but an eye for the leading lady. (Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda.) The streetwise platinum blonde girl who looks like an angel, but stares like a slut. (Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck, bleached). The evil bastard with the money and the woman, who gets insanely jealous (Wallace Beery, Edward G. Robinson or Lionel Atwill).

I know there’s no movie with quite that cast, but wouldn’t you like there to be? Yet this show, directed with style and punch and lots of highly mobile camerawork by Lawrence, winds up frustrating you — or me at any rate. It‘s so well-done for a while that it seems a shame, at the end, to feel so dissatisfied by it.

The movie is good, when it’s good, not just because of its snazzy direction, or its literate, knowing script by LaGravenese, or its memorably sick and stylish villain (Waltz), or its eye-pleasing pretty girl/pretty boy lovers (Witherspoon and Pattinson), but also in large part due to its sumptuously tawdry period production design by Jack Fisk (Days of Heaven) and the lush, moody color cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros). But by the end, the cliches have piled up, and the climax seems rushed, contrived, and unfelt. It will not be found here, even mercifully buried in a SPOILER ALERT.

Thanks to Fisk and Prieto though, and to Lawrence, “Water for Elephants” is often as visually stunning as the best films of the period it evokes. For all its gorgeous color, the movie evokes some of those films and their black-and-white ‘30s glories: from the realistic grittiness of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Wild Boys of the Road, to the harsh violence and crime of Public Enemy and Scarface, to the electric eroticism of Red Dust, to the baroque circus and freakshow worlds of Dante‘s Inferno, Freaks and Mystery of the Wax Museum” to the lush Dietrich-von Sternberg splendors of Morocco or Blonde Venus.

But Water for Elephants engages us (maybe) without really sealing the deal. It’s a good movie that probably should have been more than good, that starts out very well indeed, and then stumbles and loses its legs by the end. Maybe the logistics of the last big scene were too much, or Pattinson’s Jacob just not that interesting an ersatz James Dean, or maybe the push for a crowd-pleaser clouded some judgment.

Still, the movie looks great, and it has a fine, loathsome villain, and it has a pretty terrific elephant too. Rosie/Tai has that leathery skin that makes an elephant seem old and wise, and he moves his great bulk with the slow majesty that makes you applaud him, even if he just kneels and gets up on his hind legs or forelegs, and bows. The movie finally lost me. But, whatever goes wrong here, it’s not the elephant’s fault.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Water for Elephants”

  1. cjane says:

    Do not miss Rosie’s story in this movie. She shows how badly treated circus animals were in the 30’s. Sadly here we are 80 years later and Rosie/Tia fellow circus elephant performers still live an abusive and inhumane life to entertain the public. If you haven’t seen the photos and videos released in 2009 showing how the circus industry trains it’s baby and adult elephants, you haven’t looked on the Internet and YouTube. The trainers are using real bullhooks, real ropes and a real electric prod to hit, shock, jab their baby elephants, these training sessions continue for months or year. You soon realize that people like August still exist in our modern day circuses. Circus elephant abuse is still alive and going strong in the 21st century.
    If you think animals should be treated humanely the circus is the last place you should go. Otherwise you will miss Rosie’s message.

  2. gfci says:

    hello,i’m glad to share this post,nice discuss,i’ll keep visiting asap,thanks


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon