Water for Elephants

I was going to try to see Atlas Shrugged Part 1 this weekend, but Allison my Ayn Rand follower did not show up today, and I remembered that I had promised my wife I would take her to see this. She is a “Twi-Hard” and so was drawn to the movie by Robert Pattinson, but she had also read the novel that the movie is based on and had very high expectations for Hal Holbrooke playing the older version of Pattinson’s character. I liked the idea of a circus movie, since my family was involved in the live entertainment business and my Father played with circuses on numerous occasions. So there was a lot to live up to.

My biggest surprise was that our young actor acquitted himself quite well as the lead in the story. He does do a little too much of that smoldering burdened look, but that seemed appropriate for the part. I think it ended up that he was pretty well cast. The main focus of the story is set on the growing attraction between the lost soul young man and the star of the circus played by Reese Witherspoon. She is an accomplished actor and I have enjoyed her in other films but here she seems a little miscast. I think she is slightly too old for the part she is playing and there is something much to contemporary about her mannerisms. She did not detract from the film, but she is the first lead and she never really held the screen the way a star is supposed to.

As is often the case, the most memorable performance is turned in by the actor playing the heavy in the story. In this case it is Christoph Waltz, seen earlier this year in “The Green Hornet” as the bad guy, and last year indelibly as the Jew hunting Nazi in “Inglorious Basterds”. I look forward to the day when he is cast in a different kind of part, but he was once again the center of attraction for a movie. His character can be immensely charming one moment and murderously obsessed the next. So clearly they cast for type and it works. As the delusional and autocratic ringmaster and absolute ruler of this 1931 circus, he is believable and very frightening. I think I need to read the book myself, because if the story in the film is correct, I can’t understand why anyone would stick with this circus for more than a day. The brutality of the way of life seems far too great to sustain a long term commitment, even in the tough economic times of the depression. There is a parallel character in a movie from the 70’s called “Emperor of the North”. Ernest Borgnine is a sadistic railroad conductor, and the brutish means he uses to enforce his will reminded me of the tools used in this movie.While the Borgnine character was an unpleasant monster, Waltz’s Gus, at least had some personality to compensate for his inhumanity.

The other big co-star of the movie is the elephant, Rosie, who becomes the fulcrum by which our hero is going to pry loose his lady love from her evil prince. The elephant is very sweet and shown as a clever animal that has been underestimated by nearly everyone. I won’t spoil anything by telling you that Rosie gets some of the best scenes in the movie, especially in the climax of the story. Hal Holbrooke was fine, but I get the feeling his part was cut way back by the screenplay so that he basically becomes a bookend for the main plot. James Cameron got a lot of crap over the screenplay for “Titanic”, but he made the character of old Rose a big part of the events of the film. Bookends don’t get the kind of attention Gloria Stuart got for her part in that earlier romance. Mr. Holbrooke does very well with what he has been given but there was room for more depth in the part.

The music in the movie was well placed and there are two particular spots where the songs of the times are worked into the story very effectively. I’m sure there is CGI, but it was incidental to the storytelling, the background sets and the train came across as real places in time. The setting feels very much of the place and time it represents. There were several incidental characters that could have been stronger and made the story less of a potboiler, it basically ends up that they become scenery for the three main characters to move around during the romance. This was a solid adult romance that was not insulting to the audience. It had the potential to be much more, but the focus on the love story steps on the mood and setting of the film. Everyone did a good job with the film and audiences should enjoy it for what it is. To me though, much of the romance should derive from the circus atmosphere, and in the last half of the movie, that was missing. In baseball parlance the film is a ground rule double.

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