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Tensionless ‘Water For Elephants’ Fatally Mismatches Leads, Casts Spot-On Supporters

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Average: 4.6 (11 votes)
HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – While Robert “Twilight” Pattinson has persuasively branched out beyond his typecasting of reanimated and preternatural corpses, his miscast union in the tensionless “Water for Elephants” with pin-up circus spectacle Reese Witherspoon works as well as an elephant trying to spoon a sworn-enemy lion.

Despite an uneven plot progression that theatrically only brings a comatose life to Sara Gruen’s 2006 best-selling historical novel, sadistic ringmaster Christoph Waltz (Oscar winner for Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”) and flashback story teller Hal Holbrook (Oscar nominated for Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild”) are the film’s only redeeming salvations.

Reese Witherspoon (left) and Robert Pattinson in Water for Elephants
Reese Witherspoon (left) and Robert Pattinson in “Water for Elephants”.
Image credit: David James, 20th Century Fox

Waltz, who’s hopelessly haunting in 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds” as the film’s principal Nazi nemesis, resuscitates similar gestures and speech patterns. While he’s playing a very similar character within a completely different and convoluted traveling circus story, he’s the primary character who’s making interesting use of his supporting screen time. Casting and then dropping Sean Penn for a Waltz replacement is one of the few things this film got right.

While the film doesn’t delve into compelling book developments such as the revelation that Waltz’s character (August) is actually a paranoid schizophrenic, so does it only glance over the literary themes of a love triangle, trialing a man’s moral compass, circus life during the depression, mental illness, emotions versus clear-mindedness, self-worth and illusion versus reality. Gruen’s decision to aptly name Jacob (played in the film by Pattinson) is drawn from the backbone of the story’s parallels to the biblical story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis.

Pattinson and Witherspoon appear to be here just to get paid. The film never realizes a true chemical potential between them because it doesn’t exist. The prude, sexless duo should study how couples like Keira Knightley and James McAvoy bubbled up frenzied salacity in “Atonement”.

Christoph Waltz (left) and Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants
Christoph Waltz (left) and Reese Witherspoon in “Water for Elephants”.
Image credit: David James, 20th Century Fox

Writer Richard LaGravenese and director Francis Lawrence tragically shaft Hal Holbrook by only granting him a few minutes at the beginning and end of a melodrama in which you could snooze through an attempt at its middle meat. Toward the end of his life, he’s discussing memoirs from 70 years ago of a currently “90- or 93-year-old” protagonist living in a nursing home. Holbrook’s eyes lure you into caring about his story for a microscopic moment while the rest of the film bombs at exploding the ember he briefly sparks.

The film even fails to win “cute animal” points (there’s an attempt made with a dwarf’s Jack Russell Terrier named Queenie) and only scores a couple caring moments for its acts of animal cruelty. And while this film blunders at descending you into what should be an intriguing and mysterious rabbit hole, we’re reminded of stories like “Moulin Rouge!” where such a subculture of illusionary entertainment is triumphantly traversed.

Instead, we’re left to create little-known observations in “Water for Elephants” such as the mention of the city of Altoona, Penn. acquiring the financially beleaguered Benzini Brothers circus that strived to supersede the premier Ringling Brothers.

Robert Pattinson in Water for Elephants
Robert Pattinson in “Water for Elephants”.
Image credit: David James, 20th Century Fox

Altoona is a population 47,176 city that most people have never heard of until literally and ironically this month when “Super Size Me” director Morgan Spurlock temporarily renamed it to the title of his latest film. For 60 days and $25,000, Altoona currently has the long-winded name of POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Penn.

The character Rosie had promise. She’s one of the film’s standout stars whose name you don’t know. You’ve probably never seen her film work before and she’s unlikely to have directly received a payday for her work here. She’s the film’s talented, human-like and non-English-understanding elephant.

While Rosie is purchased after the Cornell veterinarian dropout (Pattinson) puts down the show’s star horse, Rosie is initially deemed a financially ruinous investment due to her inability to create a new cash cow for the traveling circus. Thankfully, this mega bull understands Polish – which coincidentally is the same language in which Pattinson’s character is fluent – and even entertainingly performs to Polish circus commands.

Robert Pattinson (left) and Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants
Robert Pattinson (left) and Reese Witherspoon in “Water for Elephants”.
Image credit: David James, 20th Century Fox

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Star More reviews from Adam Fendelman.

Though bringing paper pages to the big screen requires understandable cuts and adaptations, we can’t forgive the awkward pacing in “Water for Elephants”. We can’t buy the progression that an emotionally distraught and wealthy Cornell boy – who’s moments away from finishing his degree – would give it all up to hop a train that just happened to launch him into the traveling circus. And then there just happened to be the injection of the classic Hollywood love story with the added contriver of forbidden attraction.

Based on the spinal column of a richly worthwhile novel, a catastrophically miscast lead duo and a vegetarian screen story only serve up scant droplets from this tale’s oceanic potential. Emile Hirsch and Channing Tatum (who auditioned for the role of Jacob) and Scarlett Johansson (who turned down Reese Witherspoon’s role as Marlena) all dodged the bullet that is this film’s train wreck.

“Water for Elephants” stars Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, James Frain, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Stephen Taylor, Ken Foree, Scott MacDonald, Sam Anderson, John Aylward and Brad Greenquist from director Francis Lawrence and writer Richard LaGravenese based on the novel by Sara Gruen. The film, which is rated “PG-13” for moments of intense violence and sexual content, has a running time of 122 minutes. “Water for Elephants” opened everywhere on April 22, 2011.

HollywoodChicago.com publisher Adam Fendelman

By ADAM FENDELMAN
Publisher
HollywoodChicago.com
adam@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2011 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com LLC

Rain's picture

Adam: your uber negative

Adam: your uber negative review is rather surprising considering it followed the book quite closely. I could respect a negative review but this is mindless rambling…you’re up in arms about Altoona, PA? LOL

Your comment: “We can’t buy the progression that an emotionally distraught and wealthy Cornell boy – who’s moments away from finishing his degree – would give it all up to hop a train that just happened to launch him into the traveling circus.” Obviously you’ve never suffered great personal loss or you’d understand why he couldn’t take the final exams. This is also proof you didn’t see the movie because it is explained in the film why he had to leave.

Im happy the film is doing quite well and it appears your “review” is the only real “train wreck” here. LOL

Pierrette's picture

Well said , I agree with

Well said , I agree with this comment . Read the book too , the changes were not that drastic . And I did enjoy the movie . That’s unfortunate Robert pattinson will have to endure criticism for twilight hopefully he will be able to get better at his craft , I believe he has potential . Reese is a veteran Oscar winning actress and I like her work always . Actors make movies mainly for the fans not critics, most people don’t care about their rants anyway ! Lol!

Mary Ann/Altoona, Pa's picture

The Book "Water for Elephants

I enjoyed the movie and I am asking since you said you read the book I would seriously like to read the book myself also as I know the I could read the book & read alot into it that was left out of the movie. Do you know where I could get that book, is it even still in print? Maybe Amazon.com. Lucky you to have read the book. If you could let me know of how to get a cfopy of the book I would appreciate it. Thank you. Angellight222@aol.com ( in Altoona, PA)

Linda Blanchard's picture

Fendelman WFE "review"

I want to comment, but I refuse to dignify this drivel with more than the following:
We (yes, I can use the royal “we” too) can’t forgive the rambling, tedious pile of refuse that is this “review”. And we do know about Altoona, despite being unaware of Supersizing it. Get your head out of your kiester.

Alicia Bruning's picture

WFE movie thoughts

I don’t have a lot of time to actually read much but I loved this book. Oddly, I have Robert Pattinson to thank for that as I only got the book after hearing that he was going to be doing the screen adaptation. I followed all the news on the filming for months and even got my 11 year old interested to the point that she read the book and did an extra credit school assignment on it to earn her ticket to see the movie (obviously, I was relieved when it was PG 13). We saw the movie together last night and sadly, I have to say that I agree with the above review. I am soo disappointed. The story of WFE is soo rich in every way and the movie only did the visual aspects justice. I felt that the material from the book gave this movie the potential to be the next “Titanic”. Sadly, that is not what I saw last night. I don’t know if it was the acting or the directing but it was painful to watch the potential I saw in the story deflated more and more as each agonizing moment went on. To his credit, Robert did manage to create the flashes of animal activist hero that made Jacob’s character worthwhile, but I was never able to buy him as Marlena’s hero, which is what he is in the book. There was no chemistry between them and it was actually uncomfortable watching them “try’ to fall in love, to me they felt more like an older sister and younger brother. Sadly, as I see Robert in more and more roles, he is starting to remind me more and more of another young actor: Troy Donohue. Women love him, but sadly, his true acting abilities are still somewhat lack luster. There was more than one moment when I found myself cringing as Robert’s accent “slipped”. More and more I think he needs to stop trying to imitate the american accent and follow the example of Hugh Grant, atleast until he grows into his overall acting abilities a bit more. Back to the movie: The plot order changes at the end were disturbing and startling and at the end of one scene, one woman in the theatre actually exclaimed out loud “What!?!”. Ironically this is what caused the one comical moment for all of us, though parts of the book had made me laugh outloud. I also think they missed a big element when they cut out the character of “Uncle Al”. His absence from the plot was glaring as the story attempted in vain to plod through without him. And changing “Old” Jacob’s location from nursing home to circus destroyed the prologue and took out a lot of insight into who Jacob is. Instead he seemed like nothing more than an whiny old man complaining about being locked in a nursing home and forgotten by his kids. Hal Holbrook was perfectly cast, but the role was so poorly adapted that it didn’t even matter. The relationship between Camel, Walter, and Jacob, which Sara spends a lot of time developing in the book was not fleshed out sufficiently, though the character of Camel, while shrunk significantly, was still likable and interesting. Maybe I got my hopes up too much, or maybe Fox set the bar too low, whatever it was, I hope this is not the last time we see an attempt to bring this story to life. WFE is soo much more than what it has become.

Anonymous's picture

too bad you saw a different

too bad you saw a different Movie than we all did. It was quiet true to the Book ….its only 2 hours long thats all they could put into it. Rob did great Reese was the weak link in this Movie….chemistry wise. “There was more than one moment when I found myself cringing as Robert’s accent “slipped”. More and more I think he needs to stop trying to imitate the american accent”??????????? WTF ………Even Waltz said that Rob can easy hold himself ..he is no Hugh or anybody…he is Mr. Pattinson…not Edward… not Jacob…..He has depth and sincerity……

lacey's picture

I was never able to buy him

I was never able to buy him as Marlena’s hero, which is what he is in the book. There was no chemistry between them and it was actually uncomfortable watching them “try’ to fall in love, to me they felt more like an older sister and younger brother.

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