Water for Elephants (2011)

Jeanne and I took in Francis Lawrence's Water for Elephants on Friday evening and came away entertained. The director of the almost-great I Am Legend (2007), Lawrence has created an actors' showcase here, albeit one in which the male lead is a little out of his element.

It's a vibrant film. The lighting was strong throughout, giving the film the right feel of nostalgia in some places with hints of the surreal in others. I particularly liked the interiors of the boxcars at night--very nice job in establishing the rollicking confinement of a travelling entertainment.

It's a nice embedded narrative, a story told in flashback by the likable Hal Holbrook (who has given a one-man show at FSCJ's South Campus a few times in recent years)--the aged version of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), our story's protagonist. Jankowski loses his family and his fortune in a short period of time. He sets out to find his way in life and becomes a veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers Circus.

He quickly ingratiates himself to the circus's owner, August (played wonderfully by Cristolph Waltz), and very shortly thereafter to the owner's lovely wife Marlene (a nice turn by Reece Witherspoon).

August is an interesting character. He teeters back and forth between living a life of extravagance and being able to pay his debts. He is both cruel and generous, a general and a confidante. I loved the scene in which he took Jacob on the roof of the train.

Waltz plays the eccentric villain very well, and his performance here is at least the equal of his Oscar-winning turn in Inglorius Basterds. He leaches what seems a very sincere appreciation for the history of the circus onto the screen, which makes it so much more difficult to watch him menacing his wife and the company's animals.

Witherspoon intrigues me. After watching her here, I can't picture another player in the role. She is sincere and alluring and she plays it with grace. It's so hard for me, as a fan of movies, to reconcile her work here with some of the silly choices in her past.

Pattinson is borderline creepy in his portrayal of Jacob. The scenes in which he watches August and Marlena dancing and being affectionate were uncomfortable, and he makes a strange face--a look of drug-addled constipation--time and time again. But when he's not making the face, he is believable and engaging as Jacob. It's a mixed bag for our vampish lead, but not an altogether poor outing.

The story is heart warming and nicely shot. I like the pacing, and Witherspoon and Waltz, in particular, really did a nice job with the piece. I like it at a 'B' grade and would recommend fans of the circus, of strong visual narratives, and of romance to see it in the theaters...

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