A young man named Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) drops out of Cornell University’s Veterinary school in the middle of his final exams after finding out about his parents’ death. It’s the Depression, and he’s left with nothing, so he starts walking, and before long finds himself hopping aboard a train that just happens to be carrying the Benzini Brothers Circus. After telling the volatile circus boss August (Christoph Waltz) that he’s a vet, he gets hired on to care for the animals. He also happens to fall in love with said circus boss’s beautiful wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Oops.
I reviewed the book last week on the blog, so it seemed like a good idea to also review the movie. I was in a unique position of seeing the movie a few days after finishing the book. This isn’t always a great idea, because the book is still so fresh in your mind that you can’t help comparing it to the movie at every turn. However, the movie version of Water for Elephants is good enough to stand on its own.
Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) with a screenplay adapted by Richard LaGravenese, the movie stays fairly faithful to its source material, perhaps even to a fault: it tries to cram in all of the characters and events from the book into two hours, and it doesn’t quite manage to pull this off. However, the largely talented cast and the absolutely beautiful shots of Rosie the elephant help to make up for this slight case of over-ambitiousness. Readers, believe me when I tell you that the best scenes are the ones with the elephant.
Much has been made of the fact that Pattinson apparently can’t act. I don’t agree with this pronouncement: while I don’t think he’s the greatest actor of our generation, I think that he inhabited the character of Jacob very well. His facial expressions conveyed every emotion that his character felt, and that was more than satisfactory in a story like this. Witherspoon was beautiful and plucky, which is pretty much what she’s supposed to be in a role like this. Of course, Waltz is the one who really shines as paranoid schizophrenic August, and his ability to go from charming to lethal in a matter of seconds is amazing to watch.
The real problem is that Pattinson and Witherspoon had zero romantic chemistry. This is something that has been pointed out in other reviews, so I know I’m not the only one who noticed it. As a viewer (and a lover of the romance, as we’ve talked about on this blog before), it’s essential for me to buy the attraction happening onscreen. That wasn’t the case with this movie, and that was kind of a bummer. The one love scene between Witherspoon and Pattinson was so devoid of any actual spark that I actually yawned during it.
Even so, fans of the book should see this movie. It’s faithful enough to satisfy those who like to nitpick, and it’s entertaining enough to hold the interest of those who haven’t read the book. Recommended, with reservations.
Water for Elephants is playing in theaters now.