Switching up his animal instincts from going toe to toe with werewolves to joining up with the circus, Robert Pattinson expands his range as he’s born again this time around, not as a vampire, but as a pretend licensed veterinarian in Water For Elephants. The period is the Great Depression when jobs are scarce if existing at all, and this rocky road movie romance captures with a subdued, gritty charm, the ordeal of hard times employment that is literally to die for.
Pattinson is Jacob in Water For Elephants, a shy, sensitive Cornell veterinary student and son of a Polish immigrant, forced to leave college following a family tragedy. Fed up anyway with ‘six years of dissections, castrations and shoving my arms up a cow’s ass,’ and with the family home in foreclosure, Jacob hops a passing train in an impulsive move that will change his life forever. And during a vividly portrayed, chaotic and confused dark time in US history in 1931, when ‘everybody seemed to have nowhere to go.’
Finding himself in the midst of a colony of rowdy circus nomads, Jacob talks his way into a job as resident veterinarian. And even though he doesn’t actually have a degree, his knowledge and skills are a vast improvement over the cruel and exploitative treatment of the circus animals there. A deplorable state of affairs presided over by August (Christoph Waltz), the diabolical circus ringleader. Who also abuses his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the ‘star attraction’ performer, when not financially downsizing his staff by intermittently and homicidally tossing them off the speeding train along the route.
And with August alternately courting and terrorizing Marlena, who meekly allowed herself to be lured into the sadist’s lair because ‘out there I got nothing – just like everybody else’, it’s inevitable that the brutalized woman and lonely drifter would soon be sneaking trysts out of sight behind Rosie the elephant. Though the blatant absence of even minimal erotic chemistry between the assigned lovebirds, especially on the part of Witherspoon (c’mon Reese, you can do way better than that) makes Pattinson’s affection for the circus animals seem almost borderline forbidden desire in comparison.
Based on the popular Sara Gruen novel and directed by Francis Lawrence (who helmed I Am Legend and music videos for Britney Spears, Will Smith, Sarah McLachlan and Aerosmith), Water For Elephants is steeped in visceral imagery that captures the intensity of Depression era times. A grueling economic desperation that likewise penetrates the human relationships that play out psychologically and emotionally in the story. If only a dramatically hard to swallow Reese Witherspoon in particular, had not seemed so out of her habitual comfort zone, as an affluent celebrity in real life playing a subjugated woman from economically impoverished roots in this movie.
20th Century Fox
2 1/2 stars