Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Water for Elephants

The Elephant Couple

I have to admit my tinge of skepticism about the film after watching the trailer as it looked like one of yet another formulaic romantic drama that Hollywood churns out on a regular basis, but thankfully this turned out to be better than expected, surprisingly brought about about by the presence of Robert Pattinson being able to hold his own as the well-liked protagonist Jacob. Based upon the novel by Sara Gruen and set in the early 30s of the Great Depression and Prohibition in the USA, director Francis Lawrence wastes no time in cutting to the chase, putting Jacob right into the thick of the action with a travelling circus troupe which would be his new home and family.

There aren't too many circus related films these days, with the last I can recall being Tim Burton's Big Fish, so this was a refreshing shot in the arm rather than to revisit yet another comic book film, or a reboot / remake. And with a circus comes the myriad of bountiful performances from clowns to acrobatic acts, right down to the taming of the lion even, that we the audience get to enjoy ringside seats at the celluloid big top spectacular, under the guidance of ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz), an astute businessman with a violent temper and penchant to get to his objectives set through any means possible.

Jacob, a Cornell veterinarian undergraduate into his last legs of study until a family tragedy meant a wiping of kin and money, forcing the kid to grow up fast and take to the streets in order to survive. In a stroke of coincidence he finds himself in the company of a circus troupe headed by August who decided to take the chap in based upon his close qualifications, in a session that really hit the nail on the head with its rationale of providing talent a chance at something rather than be bounded by paper certificates. It's not always easy for the new guy in the various orientation / honeymoon stages of a new job where he's tasked to look after the circus animals, and then that of its star attraction, the aged elephant christened Rosie.

What I enjoyed about the film isn't the romance, but rather how the troupe opted to survive under the leadership of August, who doesn't always make the popular decisions, but the right ones, sometimes dubious, necessary to ensure the continuation of their corporation. In some ways it almost resembles local politics even, where this party got chosen for its leadership team, who often also has enough muscle to dish out punishment if someone were to stray from the party direction. A conforming behaviour is expected where questions aren't supposed to be raised, and everyone going about their assigned duties to ensure economic survival in dire straits, with leaders obssessed with performance and revenue figures, while at the same time highlighting how those who fail to perform get unceremoniously tossed aside, since they aren't contributors and the circus isn't a welfare. Every conceivable trick of a circus or performance having to employ its own insiders, cannot get more pronounced here, which makes it quite fun to observe at the wayside, showing the darker side to things we seldom see beneath the surface.

But the film isn't really all about Circus Tycoon, than it is about the troubled romance between a married woman, and the newest kid on the block. Smittened by Marlena (Reese Whitherspoon), Jacob tries to keep his feelings under wraps but I guess when there's an almost animalistic like attraction between a couple, no force in this would could come in between. And here's where I thought the romance failed with the pairing of Whiterspoon and Pattinson, with one clearly older than the other, and it shows in the most unlikeliest of pairings that makes it a stretch to believe they could be anything more than platonic friends, with weak attempts at innuendo to betray their true feelings. It could also be that biting the hand that feeds you isn't my cup of tea in the first place, and the love shown by the respective individuals for the elephant they have to work with, chalks up more mileage instead, with emotions running a little deeper especially when they have to rehabilitate the mammal.

Those who suspect Robert Pattinson's acting chops outside of the wildly popular Twilight series will probably change your mind when you see him whip up a spectrum of emotions as a youth at the crossroads of his life having opportunities ahead of him being whisked from under his feet, from downcast with losing the only folks he knows in the world, to the elation of finally being accepted and finding meaningful work with his own abilities. Reese Whitherspoon on the other hand didn't lift her game opposite her more youthful co-star, and didn't look at all comfortable which shows in the film.

Animal lovers will likely take offense at Christoph's ruthless portrayal of August, which is a good thing as he makes it easier to dislike his sociopathic character. Like his previous roles in Inglourious Basterds and The Green Hornet, he lulls you into complacency with a friendly demeanour, only for his true colours to show later on which provides that additional sucker punch feeling of danger as you realize the presence of pure evil. But the brilliance of Christoph's portrayal also means playing the sympathetic card as well, since the real push of the character over the edge, is the slow losing of the grip on his wife, and his troupe as well, in what would be a CG filled final act that didn't quite look too polished.

Francis Lawrence that took a leaf from how James Cameron's Titanic bookended the film, with Water For Elephants delivering a surprisingly enjoyable period piece with great production values set around train travels, animals and circus acts, complete with emotional maturity befitting a classic, if not for the relative weaker romantic elements to rob it of some shine.

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