What is it that makes the circus so appealing? The clowns? The high-wire acts? The colorful costumes and slapstick humor? Probably all of them, to varying degrees. Variety is the key to a circus' success. And, when successful, the circus can be a captivating experience, even in the age of streaming films online; the connection that circus performers have with their live audiences is difficult to replicate, let alone capture. I say all of this because the following film, Water for Elephants, which has a great deal to do with the circus, mostly left me wishing that I was at one instead of in the movie theater.
This isn't to say that Francis Lawrence's film, an adaptation of Sara Gruen's acclaimed best-seller, is a bad one. It's simply a middling effort, one that fails to become truly involving or capture the magic. On the day of his final exam at Cornell, Jacob Jankowski, son of two Polish immigrants, learns that his parents have been killed in a car accident. He soon discovers that their home was mortgaged for his education, leaving him without a place to stay. Distraught and confused, he packs up some belongings and begins wandering along a train track, where he jumps aboard a late-night train. The train, as it turns out, houses the Benzini Brothers circus, run by August (Christoph Waltz) and headlined by star performer - and August's wife - Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). With his skills from veterinary school, Jacob slowly but surely becomes accepted into the circus by everyone from the crewmen to August.
Of course, at this point we know what's coming: the inevitable love affair/demonization of the 'other man.' Granted, Water for Elephants earns points for at least giving some context to August's dark nature, but as the film chugs ahead, it can't help but feel a bit too tidy and shallow. The film wants to look more at its characters lives and the dire situation of circuses in the Depression Era, but it all feels a bit thin. The standouts of the film are in the artistic and technical departments, with strong costume work really bringing the era alive. If only if the same amount of skill and passion had gone into the performances and writing. As characters, the one we best understand eventually becomes our domineering antagonist. Meanwhile, Pattison and Witherspoon's lovers have only middling chemistry. In the story department, there are vague hints of subplots that would better flesh out the hardships of the time period, which seem to have been either left on the cutting room floor, or left out from the script altogether. From what I can gather from friends who have read the source material, the film is a severely watered down version of the novel, to rather startling detriment. There are moments of uncertainty, but nothing that isn't resolved in an unsurprising way.
Weakest of all is how the story begins to lurch forward towards its conclusion in the last act. To his credit, Lawrence keeps the transitions between these lurches stable enough so that they aren't awkward or amateurish. Still, the final half hour leaves a lot to be desired, and concludes with an annoying neat and tidy ending. To be fair, the film is sporadically involving, and it's never offensively bad in any regard. It's just all too safe, tepid, and uninspired to be anything worthy of mention. The poster for Water for Elephants proclaims that "Life is the Most Spectacular Show on Earth." I entirely agree, because this film is anything but.