Friday, April 22, 2011
Water For Elephants -- Violence Trumps Circus in Depression Era Film ...
Welcome to the circus from hell, the new movie just out based upon the novel of the same name, Water for Elephants.
Red lighting to your right! Animal abuse to your left! And in the center --- or only --- ring, the meanest SOB who ever blew the whistle or ran a red-light train. He's foundering in debt, in need of a star attraction to bring back the crowds, sound familiar? His lovely wife has wandering eyes for a Cornell student majoring in veterinary medicine, out of money and house in the Great Depression, his parents having just died, he having jumped aboard a train in the middle of the night in search of salvation somewhere else, finding himself in the sleazy, creepy clutches of Benzini Bros Circus.
You want realism? You may get more than you want here, and I'm accepting that circuses once operated like this one, violently on the fly. Terrifically cast Christoph Waltz, who runs away with the film playing August, a sadistic circus owner with a morbid sense of humor to boot, may earn an Oscar nomination for best actor, unless his sheer ferocity is deemed too over the top. He brings the strongest dramatic presence to the film. Reese Withersppon as Marlena and the slightly affected Robert Pattinson as Jacob (overly prone to stilted facial posturing) deliver, well, serviceably well.
Movie plods along without a strong pulse in the first hour (an early scene on the Circus Vargas lot of today puts too much footage between us and the story). Somewhere into the second half, the action-intense scripting takes off and goes for the gut, whatever its depth or lack of. By then, August is onto something up between his wife and Jacob. And he will not let go.
From there, tension builds neatly into fears and depictions of mass red lighting, climactic fights between Jacob and August, a mass escape of animals from the menagerie into the tent (the rather formulaic look of a disaster epic), and August's attempted strangulation of Marlena before his own demise, cleverly at the trunk of a suspiciously cued elephant, calling to mind something out of maybe Disney's Dumbo.
I felt strongly engaged by the end, even if, outside, I was also left with a bitter taste in my mouth. In many ways, Water for the Elephants is a downer. PETA will love its depiction of animal abuse, whether accurate or not.
Circus movies that aim for high or low drama tread a difficult path, largely because "circus" action is itself not violent or brooding, but in fact the very opposite. Something like trying to turn Bambi into The Silence of Bambi.
Historical content of scenes -- side show banner lines (tops), wagons from Baraboo, flats and tents, all look marvelous. Stylized interior big top scenes of performers at work are a mixed bag. But then again, this is not really a circus movie-- unless you wish to view it principally as a veiled indictment of animal cruelty under a sadistic big top.
It's a somewhat disjointed affair that may hit pay dirt too late. My rotten tomatoes prediction? Let's say around 65%
What the critics are saying. A slight majority favor the film. Here are some excerpts:
Stephen Holden, New York Times: "The film is so bland that it made me long for 'The Greatest Show on Earth,' the 1952 DeMille extravaganza that used the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. That movie left you feeling as if you’d enjoyed at least one roll in the sawdust. "
David Germain, Associated Press: "Elephants' is a three-ring bore."
Michael Philips, Chicago Tribune: "the unexpectedly good film version of 'Water for Elephants' elevates pure corn to a completely satisfying realm of romantic melodrama."
Rotten Tomatoes so far gives it a 54% rating.