A notebook of links and commentary on film and the arts, with occasional stabs at understanding current events. A mix of the serious and the silly, and with a special emphasis on Ms. Natalie Portman.
Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Water for Elephants
At one point in Water for Elephants (directed by Francis Lawrence from a novel by Sara Gruen) an old man complains about his leg, and then wouldn't you know it that leg becomes a plot point later. There's little surprise in this tale of Jacob (Robert Pattinson), orphaned during the Depression just as he is about to become a veterinarian, but the movie has an agreeable and involving hum. It's a tale of characters we haven't seen before: Americans who lived through the depression by trying to outrun it, a closed society with its own rules, traditions, and taboos. Jacob's skill with animals lands him a job with traveling circus run by August (Christoph Waltz), an ambitious man married to bareback rider and star attraction Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, out of comedy mode and underplaying well). Christoph Waltz displays the same on-the-edge-of-madness magnetism he brought to Inglourious Basterds, but there's no time for jokes here. When a boozy dance with his wife almost turns violent it's a just a hint of the way August uses his anger to deal with the economic and personal pressure he's under. It's August's very real cruel streak (especially where a potential circus-saving elephant named Rosie is involved) and the attraction between Marlena and Jacob that fuels the movie to its violent conclusion, a scene that must have employed digital trickery but that comes off as genuinely scary. I'd be interested to see Robert Pattinson do a comedy, but there are moments here (with the elephant and with the troupe's dancing girls) that are as relaxed as anything he has done on screen. Pattinson and Witherspoon are a good match; I believed the attraction much more than I believed that as an old man Pattinson would turn into Hal Holbrook. I wanted to spend more time in that colorful circus community, the background players give the movie a texture that injects the love triangle story with some energy and all three leads look great in fancy dress. It isn't hard to figure out where Water for Elephants is headed, but a movie that gets the details right makes the trip itself an attraction.