The circus movie for me, when I was kid, was "Trapeze," with Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrigida and Tony Curtis. Nineteen-Fifty-Six was the year for that swinging picture.
To get a better feel for what "Water for Elephants" is like, take a heaping helping of "Trapeze" and mix in some of the mid-30s movies made by Jean Harlow and Clark Gable: there were six of them before Ms. Harlow's death in the summer of 1937.
Reese Witherspoon isn't exactly a dead ringer for Jean Harlow, but you'd have to guess that visions of the first Blonde Bombshell went through a few minds conjuring up how Ms. Witherspoon's character should play in this just released greatest show on earth film. It's taken from Sarah Gruen's same-titled bestselling romance novel, the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese.
As Director Francis Lawrence's first clinch close-ups flashed on the screen of Witherspoon (as Marlena) glued to Robert Pattinson (as young Jacob), an alarm sounded about halfway between my ears that a trip down memory lane, a la Harlow and Gable, was imminent... in the guise of a thirtysomething circus (on rails) rolling through depression-gripped America.
Could "Carnivàle" be just across the next trestle?
No such luck... nothing so broodingly stark 'n' dark as that really fine but defunct HBO series set in the same period further west---mostly in the gritty, gray and swirling air of America's Dust Bowl. Albeit euphemistically, Lawrence does parade some frames by making one reflect on that creepy "Carnivàle" crew. (How can anyone forget Clancy Brown as "Carnivàle's" amazingly freakish Brother Justin Crowe?)
"Water for Elephants" is a tepid triangulation as "Trapeze" was among Burt, Gina and Tony back in '56. Now, in 2011, the triangle is comprised of Robert, Reese and... yip, and sure 'nuf, Christoph. Christoph Waltz. He plays August, Marlena's tough-minded, task master-of-a-husband and the flashy Benzini Brothers' ringmaster who gets his way with the animals using a bull hook.
Author Sara Gruen's devotion to animals makes no bones about her agenda which, I think, is very cool. Being kind to animals is noble and most decent, but can telegraph an outcome to a story written by some one as concerned as she is for the non-human creatures of this planet.
Financial stress rides hard on the Benzini business. And competition is ferocious between Benzini and Ringling Brothers. August treats most of his employees and the circus animals as you might think the cunning SS officer in "Inglourious Basterds," Col. Hans Landa, would. Waltz played Landa in that film and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it.
Jacob has just met with great tragedy in his young life: his mom and dad have been killed in an auto accident... and he learns that his veterinarian father was in hock up to his eyebrows.
The bank isn't sympathetic to Jacob's plight. So, as many did in the 30's, he hits the road, unable to carry through on career plans to follow in his father's footsteps as an animal doctor---even though being close to taking a degree from Cornell University.
In what could be described as "Picnic" in reverse, Jacob jumps a passing freight that actually proves to be the Benzini Brothers' Circus train. You can tell right away this honest, handsome, phlegmatically portrayed fellow is on track to a more exciting, if not as easy a life as the wannabe veterinarian for a traveling circus that boasts a beautiful blonde woman as its headliner. And, oh yes ... she's married to the show's sometimes charming and sometimes vicious owner/ringmaster. William Holden* never had it so good.
With giant animals and the usual out-of-the-ordinary circus folks on board a train, together... trying to make a dollar during the Great Depression, what in the world could go wrong, if however sanitized?
Can't really go into detail here. That's for you to find out at the cinema. But just know that all the things that might or do go awry in "Water for Elephants," are rather muted. The movie is rated PG-13.
At the open and the close of the film, however, you can revel in the elderly Hal Holbrook---actor extraordinaire---playing Jacob---having gotten ancient. They're where the guts of this blandly told love story hide, allowing a payoff that's pleasantly surprising.
Mr. Holbrook turned 86 last February !!! Hear, hear !!!
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