Thursday, April 28, 2011

Water for Elephants - Easy to Forget

A good romance movie requires chemistry and emotion between the lead characters. What happens when excellent source material, engaging dialogue and a beautifully (if not somewhat standard) shot film has no chemistry? You get the bland and sometime pondering ‘Water for Elephants’.

Based on the acclaimed bestseller from Sara Gruen, ‘Water for Elephants’ is the story of two depression era star crossed lovers who meet while working for a struggling circus. James Pattinson (he has the emotional range of a log) is Jacob, a veterinary student who, days before graduating, is stunned to learn of the death of his parents. Grief stricken (or at least I thought he was grief stricken, again, Pattison has two emotions, stoic and even more stoic), Jacob takes to the road and ends up hopping a train that happens to be transporting a traveling circus lead by August (Christoph Waltz) and starring the beautiful performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) who also happens to be the beloved wife of August.

Bonding over a dying horse, Marlena and Jacob fall in love and from the very start they make a unlikely pair. There is simply no spark, no passion, and no connection between the two. This is a forbidden love, she is married (happily or not is questionable) and she is now attracted to this young stranger who has stumbled into her life. Jacob begins to fill all the gaps for Marlena that August is unable to. We come to find that August is controlling and prone to violence (on the animals he keeps), where Jacob is soft and tender. However, we never come to know that on an emotional level as Pattinson has no instinct for acting whatsoever. His playbook of the blank stare along with his sparkling eyes may work on the teenie boppers who flock to the Twilight series but it simply does not work in the world of adult romance.

Witherspoon has a plethora of fine work to fall back on. She is a talented, classic beauty that is wasted on the likes of Pattison and simply not strong enough to carry the entire movie. Waltz, after the monumental misstep of the ‘Green Hornet’, is back on menacing track and steals every scene he is in. The true star, however, is Rosie the Elephant, who is picked up mid trip and used to bring the circus back to richness once again. And let us not forget the legendary Hal Holbrook as the elder Jacob, telling his tale to a modern day circus owner. Director Francis Lawrence would have done much better to have more Holbrook and less Pattison in this case.

The story of forbidden love is as timeless as the ages. Poems, songs and great novels as well as films have illustrated this for us. It is the great conflict of our time to find the one true love that is taken by another, to overcome that and live on together happily. It is a telling that deserves passion, heat and deep emotion. When it does not work, it scars and when it does, it creates a beautiful and enduring love. This is what ‘Water for Elephants’ should have been, it is what the novel is and yet the film fails to capture. Don’t get me wrong, as I said earlier, there is some great dialogue and some finely shot pieces in this film; however, you simply cannot escape the lack of chemistry or connection between Witherspoon and Pattison.

For sweeping romance, far better to see ‘Jane Eyre’ or even the surprisingly romantic sci-fi thriller ‘Source Code’ – where the characters and actual actors have that much needed chemistry. I am a little disappointed in this 2 ½ star effort as I was really looking forward to being swept away.
For my Redbox pick this week, not a romance, but one of the best thrillers/picture of the year: ‘Black Swan’ starring the always talented Natalie Portman as the unstable ballerina Nina who is called upon for the role of a lifetime in Swan Lake. This is a stunning film with stunning performances that you will not be able to look away from or shake from your emotional memory! Grab this one on Redbox or Vudu (which I just tried this week – AWESOME!) and save yourself the trip (and gas) to the video store!

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