April 28, 2011

Welcome to the [mediocre] Circus, Cornell

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In the new film Water for Elephants, vampire heartthrob Robert Pattinson finds himself in a love triangle that takes center stage in the isolated world of a traveling circus troupe in 1931. After the sudden death of his parents, Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) abandons his home and education, at our very own Cornell University, none less (the film even features a brief shot of the Arts Quad). He travels aimlessly until he encounters a train run by the Benzini Brothers’ traveling circus. He lands a job as the circus vet (thanks to his fine veterinary education from Cornell, of course) at the approval of the circus leader, August Rosenbluth, played with fiery intensity by Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds fame. August’s wife and the show’s star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), catches Jacob’s eye, and, well, you can probably guess what happens next. Once August utters the line that gives this review its title to Jacob (minus the “mediocre” part, of course), both Jacob and the audience are in for a storm of romance and action. Much of the drama takes place on the constantly moving train, and as the train ploughs on, so does this entertaining, albeit occasionally slow, fairy tale. However, as fun and captivating as the story is, the film is undermined by weak acting and a lack of chemistry amongst a cast that includes two Academy Award winners.

Water for Elephants is a spectacular ride from start to finish, with enough drama, romance and action to keep audiences intrigued. The film also contains plenty of beautiful shots of the circus, a shiny array of images of vintage lighting and animals of all kinds, namely the title’s elephant, Rosie. But as enjoyable as the film is, it easily could have been at least thirty minutes shorter. The buildup to Jacob and Marlena’s affair lasts for the majority of the film, before culminating in an anti-climactic declaration of love. It would help if there was any chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon, who, even with the ridiculous amount of makeup she wears in the film, looks more like she could be Pattinson’s mother than his lover. Unfortunately, the two actors’ lack of chemistry makes the love affair between the characters implausible; I found myself not believing them as a couple, or even wanting them to get together. Moreover, Witherspoon is less than impressive in Elephants. Her acting just doesn’t pack a punch, and she doesn’t attempt to make anything of the script, which itself is weak on more than one occasion. She plays Marlena as a passive damsel in distress, when she easily could have played her as a strong, independent woman in a man’s world, like she did in her best-known project, Legally Blonde. Elephants is yet more proof that Witherspoon just can’t get good work since her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

The real chemistry, surprisingly enough, lies in the interactions between Pattinson and Waltz. Many of the confrontations between them are electrifying, most thanks to Waltz’s repressed fury that is released in spurts over the course of the film, but is fully unleashed in the film’s action-packed but far-fetched finale. The two work well together, and Waltz’s excellent acting job brings out the best in Pattinson. Expecting to see more of the terrible acting found in the Twilight films and 2009’s horrendous melodrama Remember Me, I was surprised to find Pattinson’s acting in Water for Elephants to be quite adequate. Sure, most of his camera time is devoted to his perfectly chiseled cheekbones and jaw line, and he still has a few truly terrible acting moments, but all in all, Pattinson proves that given the right material, he is able to take his acting to new heights with only a few bumps along the way.

The real acting done here comes from Waltz. As the villain who wreaks havoc in the confined space of a train, he can be truly frightening. At times both charming and vicious, he fully embodies August, a merciless businessman losing his wife, his career and his sanity. August is quite similar to Waltz’s character in Inglourious Basterds. In Basterds, he is a ruthless Nazi out for blood; in Elephants, he is a ruthless businessman out for a buck (and sometimes, blood too). Even though Waltz easily could have played the exact same character in Elephants as he did in Basterds, he still shines nevertheless. But for fear of becoming stuck in the role of the amiable yet scary bad guy, Waltz should start to expand his repertoire. Regardless, in spite of some of the film’s flaws, Waltz is just one of the many reasons apart from the endlessly entertaining drama and Pattinson’s sparkly face that make Water for Elephants worth seeing.

Original Author: Sydney Ramsden