BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
Curiously, "Water for Elephants" is a rather lightweight pleasure, functioning as a bastard offspring of a daytime TV Soap Opera and James Cameron's colossal hit "Titanic" (1997). While the illicit romance between Reese Witherspoon's Marlena and Robert Pattison's Jacob ignites even fewer sparks than that between Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" (2008), it is a film you are likely to enjoy if you can simply sit there uncritically. In a sense, it's kind of like the same feeling you get when having a glass of wine after taking a vicodin. (Or so I am told.)
Yes, it is absolutely true that there is little real chemistry between Pattison and Witherspoon. Like his character Edward Cullen in the increasingly regrettable "Twilight" films, Pattison largely moons around while longing for Witherspoon. Thankfully, his pensive brooding over her is repeated interrupted when her husband August, played spectacularly by Christoph Waltz, literally beats the holy hell out of him.
Ms. Witherspoon brings little depth to her femme fatale, but she certainly looks gorgeous in her Depression Era gowns, not to mention scantily clad as a circus performer riding a large elephant. In addition, both Mr. Pattison and Mr. Waltz look quite good as they repeatedly appear in tuxedos, a fact that I'm sure will not go unnoticed by many women in the audience. Let me just say that costume designer Jacqueline West may well be recognized for her work here come award season.
Despite the fact that "Water" is billed as a hot romantic film, it is the aforementioned romance that is its weakest link. What causes it to rise from the ashes of cheap romantic fare are two truly outstanding performances by Mr. Waltz and the legendary Hal Holbrook.
Though he only appears at the beginning and end of this film, Mr. Holbrook is as memorable as his Oscar nominated performance in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" (2007). Again appearing in the role of an elderly, elegant man wistfully looking back on his past, "Water for Elephants" is a story told entirely through flashbacks as Mr. Holbrook (Old Jacob) tells about his experiences in the circus in 1931. However, it is revealing that there is far more emotional resonance in Old Jacob's telling of the story than the actual story itself.On the other hand, even with Mr. Holbrook's magnificence contribution to this film, it wouldn't work on any level without the utterly captivating performance of Mr. Waltz as August, the manager of both the struggling Benzini Brothers Circus and his twisted marriage. Quite frankly, Mr. Waltz's stunning performance is every bit as galvanizing as his Oscar winning role in Tarantino's "Inglorious Bastards" (2009). He dominates the screen as a psychotic man who at any given moment can morph from being utterly charming to being wickedly violent.
Waltz's August is not so much married to his wife as he possesses her as another member of his circus. Like everyone else employed by August, she stays with him out of a combination of excitement and fear. It is impossible to take your eyes off of Waltz as he functions as a mesmerizing monster from a lower rung of Dante's Inferno.
"Water" is also immeasurably helped by a collection of supporting performances that give an honest, gritty depiction of life on the road during the Great Depression. These were desperate men in desperate times, and it is important to remember what life was like in our country before the social safety net was created under FDR, a safety net that is directly under assault by Republicans in Congress today.
Furthermore, since there is an elephant in the title of this movie, it gives nothing away to reveal that one does appear that serves to save August's struggling road show. It is further ironic that the emotion generated by Pattison and Witherspoon's attachment to this gentle pachyderm while trying to save her from August's fits of rage are far more powerful than anything the two of them can generate even when seen together in bed. And speaking of them being in bed, why is it that the man is always seen removing his shirt while movie starlets like Witherspoon strategically stay semi-clothed while purporting to make love?
In the end, "Water for Elephants" reminds me of a moment in "The Big Chill" (1983) when Kevin Kline caught William Hurt watching some mindless show on TV. When he asked him how he could possibly waste time watching something so banal, Hurt responded in words to the effect, "I find it somehow soothing. I can just sit here and just let it wash over me."
And there, my friends, you have the perfect description of this film. Visually resplendent and containing two magnificent performances, you could do far worse with two hours of your time.