Water for Elephants
“Water for Elephants” is one of those movies that a lot of
genteel---dare I say “aging”?---- churchgoing folk have been looking for:
it not only immerses the viewer in an America now consigned only to
memory, it hearkens to an earlier era of filmmaking, as well:
when four-letter words didn’t abound in every dialogue, and when the
courtship of men and women did not proceed immediately to the bedroom, but took
a while for the slow burn to ignite into sparks, and in the meantime we viewers
can enjoy watching the development of the ever-more-obvious smoldering.
Robert Pattinson, of “Twilight” fame, plays Jacob, the Depression-Era
Cornell grad student who was just about to take his final exam in veterinary
school when the Dean interrupts the testing with the terrible news:
his parents have been killed in an automobile accident.
But it gets worse. His Mom
and Dad, Polish immigrants who still spoke the mother tongue with him inside the
house, had apparently mortgaged themselves over their heads, without telling
him, to finance his education. And
so our grief-stricken young man suddenly finds himself homeless as well as
orphaned. He’s too distraught to
go back now and finish his final. And
so he just wanders down the train tracks, and hops the first train he comes
across, which just happens to be….a traveling circus.
At first, he gets rough treatment from the tough, seedy, roustabouts, but
when the owner, August (the always-menacing Christoph Waltz) hears of Jacob’s
skill with animals, he’s hired. Never
mind the not-quite qualifications, we’re all illusionists here.
Now, at least, Jacob has a job, and something useful to do that uses his
expensive education, but more importantly, he has an instant social network.
But there are a couple of problems. One
is that August is a bullying, mean-spirited tyrant.
The other is that August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is a
gentle brooding beauty who quickly catches the eye of our handsome leading man.
All this is told from the retrospective of the still-spry Hal Holbrook,
who is always a treat to watch, in the guise of spinning a yarn about the
traveling circus “back in the day” to a young manager of a modern circus,
who at first assumes the old man to be in serious dementia, but then realizes,
no, he’s just an old circus hand who wants to sniff that sawdust floor again.
(“The Roar of the Greasepaint, and the Smell of the Crowd,” and all
that.) And maybe if he happens to
keel over while loudly barking the fat lady act, he will have died happier than
in a sterile institutional setting surrounded by strangers paid to corral and
subdue him into dispirited
The Depression-Era traveling circus comes to life in this film, and it
really feels like those performers who traveled together became a substitute
family, complete with raging dysfunction. Jacob
brings not only a skill he knew he had----treating animals----but also a skill
he didn’t realize was important—speaking Polish to them!
Yes, of course, we have a classic love triangle here.
Pattinson should be accustomed to this kind of role, after the
“Twilight” series, but there were a couple of times here he could have made
good use of those vampire superpowers. Alas,
in this film, he’s very mortal in a bare-knuckles brawl.
But that’s part of the charm of his boyish character.
“Water for Elephants” will appeal to many gentlefolk who are
nostalgic for an earlier, simpler, age, and an “old-school” style of
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor,
United Presbyterian Church,