Water for Elephants (Film)

Water for Elephants (20th Century Fox)

Robert Pattinson’s most faithful fans sometimes have trouble separating the fictional, brooding vampire in the “Twilight” trilogy from the real-life, down-to-earth British guy. In fact, according to an appearance on Jay Leno in March, he once drove across the U.S. while eating hot dogs and beef jerky and sang questionable karaoke in a bar.

How did Robert become an actor?  Per an interview conducted in New York last year (read link), he was a shy 14-year-old when he became “obsessed” with a girl and joined her amateur acting class so he could adore her from afar.  In his latest film, “Water for Elephants,” he also adores someone from afar until….

It’s the Great Depression in America and it’s not uncommon to see “desperate men” running to hitch rides on trains.  Jacob (Robert Pattinson) unexpectedly becomes one of them.  In 1931, after attending Cornell University for six years, he’s about to take the final exam that will qualify him to work in Veterinary Science when he receives word that his parents have been killed in a car accident.  A double blow occurs when a bank employee ungraciously informs him that his parents, who were Polish immigrants, had taken out a mortgage on their house to pay for his tuition.  The loan has defaulted and he’s without a home.

Jacob packs a lone suitcase and begins walking disconsolately to the large town of Albany where he’s heard there’s work.  A few bloody blisters later, the night having closed in on him, he sits down in a wooded area and removes his street shoes.  When he hears the sound of a train approaching he impulsively runs to catch it, discarding his cumbersome suitcase on the way.  He climbs on board—and discovers it’s a circus train.

One of the overseers of the Benzini Brothers Circus is in the boxcar and he’s also Polish.  Camel (Jim Norton) fingers Jacob’s suit, declares he isn’t a common drifter and allows him to stay.  When they arrive at their destination and begin to set up the Big Top, Jacob becomes enthralled even though he’s put to work shoveling horse manure. After the last performance, one character says, “We created heaven in one day and just as fast heaven was packed and gone.”

Traveling on the circus train again, two men forcibly take Jacob to August (Christoph Waltz), the circus owner, and inform him he’s a “stowaway that the Pollack took under his wing.”  August, playing cards and in a jovial mood, announces that “filthy roundabouts are my family.” Nonetheless, he gives orders for the young man to be thrown off the train.  August changes his mind when Jacob quickly leads him to believe he’s received his degree in veterinary medicine.

Jacob’s first assignment is to attend to the circus’s main draw, Silver Star, a magnificent white horse that has developed a limp.  The lithe bareback rider is August’s beautiful young wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).  Jacob had become smitten with her  when he observed her in the last town, dressed in a pale pink leotard and wearing a costume tiara on her platinum-blond hair, as she worked with her horses.

Camel had imparted wise words to Jacob: There’s a pecking order in a circus.  Certain performers are considered higher class than others but everyone is “under the bosses.”  However, August bonds with Marlena after a difficult decision involving Silver Star and after he tries to come to the rescue of a 400-ton elephant named Rosie.  Soon, he’s invited to dine lavishly with Marlena and August in their elegant boxcar.  (In one scene, a man wearing gloves removes their dishes.)

Why did Marlena—who has a fairy tale beauty and presence about her—marry someone like August?  The circus owner, to be sure, is a capable and charismatic business man but he sometimes brutalizes the animals as well as his wife.  Also, sometimes he throws employees off of his fast-moving train rather than pay their salaries.

The truth is, August and Marlena seem to have a very strong bond, a passionate if not fulfilling relationship.  However, Marlena spills the beans when she shares with Jacob that she considers her husband a “miracle man for making a star attraction out of me.”  He had rescued her from a succession of bad foster homes.

Is Marlena staying with August out of true devotion, out of convenience, or out of fear?  Her growing attraction to Jacob finally answers that question.

Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) gives a riveting performance as the jealous, unpredictable circus owner.  Jim Norton as the Polish overseer gives heart to the film, a man well-liked by circus employees whose performance will also endear him to moviegoers.  Reese Witherspoon is aloof and a little enigmatic.  The film is based on the best selling novel by Sara Gruen which may provide more background on her character.

Robert Pattinson has the kind of face one likes to watch on a large screen but, aside from his scenes with the elephant, is cast in a rather undemanding  role.  (There’s no real segue between the death of his character’s parents and his new career happily shoveling horse excrement.)  However, there’s one scene where, as Jacob, he’s commanded by August to aggressively prod the imposing Rosie to make her move.  His face darkens instinctively and one becomes aware of a depth of feeling that–once he’s been given the right role–will ignite and forever classify him as a gifted actor.

Hal Holbrook plays Jacob as an old man.  What he has lost, and what he still lives for, glisten in his eyes, an almost effortless and very effective performance.

However, when Rosie the “lovesick pachyderm” is given enough screen time to perform her tricks,  she’s enthralling to watch.   Animal rights aside (massive lions are reduced to living in horrifically small cages and fed rotting food), Rosie effectively proves why adults as well as children have been drawn over the years to sit on hard wooden benches under smelly Big Tops.

(Rated PG-13: Prodding of an elephant with a metal rod; a scene of a bloody, downed elephant; tastefully done love scene; a character being choked)

(Written by C.E. Chambers and published April 2011.)

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