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The Cinematic Curmudgeon

Van Roberts

Elephants Never Forget


Although his last “Twilight” movie hasn’t even been released yet, Robert Pattinson is already struggling to forge a new screen persona for himself.  Last year’s “Remember Me” emerged as an abysmal failure for Pattinson, not to mention a shamelessly exploitative account of the 9/11 tragedy.  Now, Pattinson is pairing up with Reese Witherspoon in “I Am Legend” director Francis Lawrence’s “Water for Elephants” (*1/2 out of ****) and it fares no better than “Remember Me.”  This glum, gritty 1930s’ melodrama unfolds within the confines of a threadbare Depression-era traveling circus during Prohibition.  The unsavory plot concerns animal cruelty, marital infidelity, and cold-blooded murder. The soiled romance between Pattinson and Witherspoon as illicit lovers generates minimal sizzle.  Despite its evocative production values and historically-laden atmosphere, “Water for Elephants” qualifies as a creative misfire and this sour saga will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Disaster couldn’t occur at a worse time for a Cornell University veterinary student, Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson of “Vanity Fair”), as he is poised to take his final exam, graduate, and embark on a new life.  Jacob has enjoyed a carefree, poverty-free life and his parents love him dearly. Without warning, the authorities inform our hero that his folks have died in an automobile accident.  Worse, Jacob’s parents were up to their eyeballs in debt.  Actually, Jacob’s father had taken out a loan to put him through college.  Further, he had been a compassionate veterinarian who accepted food in lieu of cash as payment for bills from his clients.  An incredulous Jacob emerges badly shaken by these revelations with little more than a suitcase that he disposes of almost immediately when he launches himself on his travels.  He climbs aboard a train one evening and finds himself stowing away with a circus.  Jacob winds up sweating and shoveling manure for his keep.

Later, he meets Marlena (Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon of “Vanity Fair”) who is the resident platinum-blond equestrian beauty with her celebrated white stallion.  Not only is she the star attraction under the big top, but she is also married to the man who runs the circus.  August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz of “The Green Hornet”) is the ringmaster and middle-aged owner of the Benzini Brothers Circus.  He has spent his entire life in sawdust and knows all the tricks of the trade.  When Marlena’s horse goes lame, August shows an interest in Jacob for his obviously useful background in veterinary medicine.  He invites Jacob to inspect Marlena’s injured horse.  She believes that her horse will recover, and August quietly convinces Jacob to agree with her.  Reluctantly, behind Marlena’s back, Jacob confides in August that the horse should be euthanized.

The economically minded August doesn’t want to shoot the horse that has made him a fortune.  Instead, he wants to string the poor animal along until it can do nothing else than die.  Later, Jacob intercedes on behalf of the steed and puts it out of its misery with a bullet to the head.  Naturally, August is not happy.  August’s muscle-bound thugs tackle Jacob in a moving railroad box-car and threaten to hurl him off the speeding train.  August explains that this practice is known as ‘red lighting’ and the victim usually dies a horrible death.  Later, a couple of sympathetic characters meet their ill-fated fortune this way.  August has second thoughts about Jacob and grants our protagonist clemency.  Befriending Jacob, August takes him into his close circle of friends, eventually narrowing it down to his wife and himself.

Meanwhile, August has bought an elephant named Rosie from a rival outfit.  He gives Jacob custody of the beast.  Now, rather than straddle a horse, Marlena will ride atop a 9,000-pound pachyderm.  Of course, nothing goes well from the beginning.  Rosie becomes hysterical and nearly stomps on the spectators before she rampages out of the tent.  Jacob and his roustabout friend, Camel (Jim Norton of “Straw Dogs”), find the elephant in town feeding at a outdoor market.  August goes berserk and beats the animal with an iron prod.  Miraculously, the beast recovers and becomes a profitable part of the circus, attracting crowds. Inevitably, through no design of their own, Marlena and Jacob are drawn together, and they fall in love.  Mind you, Camel has warned Jacob to keep his eyes off the boss’ wife.  The incident occurs at a nightclub that the police raid for selling contraband alcohol when August steps out.  Marlena and Jacob elude the authorities, but arouse August’s suspicions.  Later, they run away from the circus, but August tracks them down.  His thugs beat Jacob within an inch of his life.  Jacob sneaks back to the circus with revenge on his mind.  He slips into August’s tent and poises a knife against the nape of an unconscious ringmaster’s neck but he cannot summon the courage to kill him.

You know a movie is in trouble when the most interesting character is a thoroughly loathsome villain who is justified in some of his actions.  Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz marvelously portrays August Rosenbluth as a such sadistic dastard that you will cheer when he receives his comeuppance.  Meanwhile, Pattinson and Witherspoon try to enliven characters who are not only wimps but also lack charisma.  It is difficult to root for both the hero and heroine when they are such losers from the start.  Adding to the woes of this terrible movie is the fact that it is wrapped around a tedious flashback so you know that nothing disastrous can occur to the protagonist since he has survived all the perils.  Mercifully, “Bridges of Madison County” scribe Richard LaGravenese has synthesized various characters and incidents from Sara Gruen’s New York Times best seller.  Nevertheless, humorously lumbering along like a elephant for two hours, “Water for Elephants” wears out its welcome quickly.  This is truly a 3-ring snore.

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