REVIEW: Water for Elephants

6 01 2015

I read Sara Gruen’s acclaimed best-selling novel “Water for Elephants” at the zenith of its popularity and found myself rather underwhelmed.  (What self-respecting novel gives only the most cursory explanation of its title?)  Francis Lawrence’s cinematic adaptation did little to change my opinion.  His “Water for Elephants” is pleasant and watchable, which is about all it has to offer.

In the film, Robert Pattinson stars as Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student whose life takes a screeching detour when his parents both die during his last exam.  Saddled not only with his own grief but also with their debts, he opts for a somewhat cliched escape route by joining the circus.  He stows away and quickly moves up from shoveling horse droppings to taking care of the show’s star animals.

He quickly discovers that his humane veterinary practices have little use in the profit-hungry Banzini Brothers circus, run by the shrewd but cruel August (Christoph Waltz).  As if that is not enough to make him worry about both occupational and personal security, Jacob finds himself smitten for the boss’s wife, star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).   Romantic rivalry quickly runs cold as Jacob’s arrival quickly accelerates the dismembering of Marlena and August’s already fragile relationship.

Lawrence prefers to leave the tensions at a standstill rather than letting them progress towards their boiling point.  As a result, “Water for Elephants” often feels flat and unexciting.  At the very least, when the sparks fail to fly at the clashing of the three leads, the environment is always believable and interesting.  The film does a nice job romanticizing the elegant, balletic movement of the circus performance as well as the extravagant moveable architecture of the spectacle.

In a sense, it adds to the story a visual element that has to remain imaginary when experienced on the page.  Too bad Witherspoon, Waltz, and Pattinson could not add more flavor with their characters.  C+2stars

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