Water for Elephants is The Notebook goes to the circus. It is visually stunning and well acted. The cast is full of actors who I love. So what was off about it? I’m afraid I’m taking a bit of an ambivalent approach to how I feel about this one. The story is a good one, and the elements of the film worked well together, but there was just something that I can’t put my finger on keeping me from saying that I loved it.
Reese Witherspoon is charming and lovely always. Cristoph Waltz is our very own uber bingo bad guy who plays nasty better than anyone I’ve seen. Robert Pattinson – though I have never seen him act in anything before (no, I haven’t seen Twilight) – was marvelous. He acts with his whole heart.
The story is of a young man, Jacob, who is nearing the end of veterinary schooling. He is quite literally sitting down to take his final exam when he is called from the room only to learn that there has been a tragic accident.
You’ve heard of people falling on hard times and running off to join the circus, no? Well that’s just what Jacob does. Leaving all of his worldly possessions behind – mainly just a suitcase that inhibits him from running fast enough to catch a passing train – he hops on train and goes full speed ahead into what will be a life changing experience.
In the early morning light, Jacob wakes to find the train has stopped and the circus begins to assemble. With a curious smile, Jacob wanders the grounds. He’s most enamored with the animals, but has yet to meet the attraction that will take his breath away. He’s given odd jobs – stinky ones, too – and works all day until the big show that night. Moments before the most extravagant extravaganza you’ll ever behold or something to that effect, Jacob lays eyes on Marlena (Witherspoon). She is dressed in sequins and a tiara and looks ethereal. Jacob notices that one of her horses has a bad leg and uses that to break the ice.
The show goes on and just like that they are back on the train headed to the next town. Jacob says something like the circus did better than God, they created Heaven on just one day.
Jacob still must be approved by August – the ring leader and Marlena’s sometimes loving husband – to join the circus. August appoints Jacob the be the vet for the circus and Jacob, though a bit unsure, takes the position. Starving for a new star attraction, August brings in Rosie the elephant.
I was thrilled to see James Frain as Rosie’s caretaker (Forney, Where the Heart is). Paul Schneider as Charlie was also delightful and a tearful performance by Hal Holbrook as old Jacob brought me to tears as well.
A-plus performances from the star attractions of this circus drama give the film the extra push to greatness that I feel it needed. Waltz plays crazy/nasty in a way that is unparalleled by any other actor. Witherspoon and Pattinson have a chemistry that is undeniable and that always helps things along. I can’t tell you what it is that made this film just so-so for me. One would think that something so aesthetically pleasing would be a win all the way, but as I said, something was just a tad off.
If you can figure it out, please let me know what it is. But also, go see this film. There is a joy that comes from seeing films like this one on the big screen. The sights and colors beg to be showcased in the appropriate light. It is beautiful and romantic and moves right along. It has a lot going for it and deserves to be seen and heard.
Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Prepare to be amazed, delighted, and just slightly underwhelmed.