The elephant is impressive. Rosie stands up on her hind legs. She stands on her front legs. She flirts with Robert Pattinson and drinks lemonade. Not to mention, she understands Polish.
All this makes Rosie something of a standout in Water For Elephants, her performance unexpected, even if her role is routine. That role, as you’ll expect, has her helping the slow-on-the-uptake humans achieve their ends—romantic and financial, maybe vaguely moral. Rosie’s an elephant in a traveling circus, and during her first appearance in the film, she’s insulted by the man who’s selling her (James Frain) and disdained by the one buying her, August (Christoph Waltz).
But she’s also admired by Pattinson’s strapping young Jacob, who might know what he’s looking at, being a Cornell veterinary student (who only needs to finish his exams to have his license to practice). On the run from tragedy during the Great Depression, Jacob has recently been hired by August to muck animal cages and look after lame horses, and he’s generally enchanted by the circus—a point made heavy-handedly when he first watches the show, his awestruck reaction simulated as the film turns to slow motion and the sound gets muffled, when music and lights and low angle shots portray the sawdust and tents and trapezes as if they are indeed magical.
The film shares his appreciation for the fantasy and escape offered by the circus, opening with a framing device wherein Hal Holbrook plays the 90-year-old Jacob, who agrees to reveal to an eager young listener (Paul Schneider) what really happened to Benzini Bros., renowned as one of the “most famous circus disasters in history.” This story he tells is big and romantic, shaped like an old-school big-top movie: though he’s not wearing tights, the object of his affection, August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), models any number of glamorous outfits, from evening gowns to silk robes to riding britches. When she puts on her acrobat’s costume and starts riding the elephant, well, Jacob just can’t help himself.
He does appreciate that she’s married, of course, but also sees himself as her savior. It turns out that as charming as August can be—as when he and Jacob sort of match wits during a discussion of Benzinis’ more famous rival, Ringling Bros.—he also frequently turns brutal and mean. The film never explains his veering between personalities, but it does suggest he’s frustrated by his show’s inability to get over. To make ends meet, he keeps on a coochie girls sideshow (though he sees that Ringlings’ family-friendly formula, rid of such salaciousness, is more profitable) and regularly withholds pay from his workers. Indeed, when they become too much of burden, he orders workers to be “red-lighted,” that is, his burliest, most reliable henchmen drop the hapless souls off the train while it’s speeding along late at night.
To avoid this fate, Jacob sells himself as a veterinarian, with Ivy League credentials. Though the oppressively earnest Jacob worries about telling this fib, in fact it endears him to his employer. When August learns Jacob’s secret, he’s unimpressed. “The world is run on tricks,” he tells Jacob, who doesn’t quite get it. Instead, the younger man intently believes in truth—in true love, in true loyalty, in true morality. It’s not a little ironic that Rosie is the most striking embodiment of Jacob’s ideals.
Even as Marlena learns to do sinuous acrobatic poses over the elephant’s shoulder and Jacob tries valiantly to save her from August’s unconscionable assaults (for whatever reasons, he takes out his frustrations over the failing circus and his straying wife on Rosie, poking her with a bull hook until she bleeds and must be fed buckets full of whiskey to withstand the pain), the elephant remains the most convincing character in this increasingly silly film. Stoic, apparently long-memoried, and possessed of a sense of humor, she also submits to the dimwitted humans’ commands, performing circus tricks so they might indulge in their own fantasies.
It’s too bad that Rosie is so reduced, but it also demonstrates how the film repeatedly misses opportunities. Indeed, beneath its trivial surface, Water for Elephants hides a passable political fable, concerning classism and Prohibition, the commercial value and exploitation of neediness, and the rise of a crass, cruel capitalism that has only expanded to this day.
At first, the movie seems inclined to use this backdrop as a metaphor for the romance: August makes a couple of speeches about how illusions work (see especially, his direction of a lovemaking show by Jacob and Marlena: it’s awful and riveting) and the couple makes clear their appreciation of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong (“I wish I could sing like her,” murmurs Marlena). But then Water for Elephants seems to lose interest in any potentially serious questions and turns instead to utterly banal plot events, soft-lit sex scenes and bloody beatdowns. Amid the hokum, Rosie, at least, looms large.