Reviews

'Water for Elephants' Hides a Passable Political Fable

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.


Water for Elephants

Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider
Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-04-22 (General release)
UK date: 2011-01-06 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

3

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image