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Review: Water for Elephants wins my heart via circus porn

By / 04.21.11

Water-for-elephants-Waltz

Water for Elephants. Opens April 22nd. Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), adapted by Richard LaGravenese (Fisher King) from Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel, starring Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, and Robert Pattinson.

The first thing I thought upon leaving my screening of Water for Elephants was, “Hmm, how ashamed should I be for liking the new Robert Pattinson movie?”  I’ve never secretly torn through a trashy romance novel before, but I imagine the feeling is similar.  Trust me, I certainly shared your pre-conceived reservations about Greezy Reese Withersoon, her supposed faux-erudite obnoxiousness, and her scary dagger chin; Robert Pattinson’s Hartnettian squintitude and association with the Twilight franchise.   But before I knew it, I was swept up in a world of elephants! Circus freaks! Midgets! Whores! Tramps riding the rails! Jolly winos! Italian street vendors! Lions! Tigers! Christoph Waltz chewing scenery!

You damned circus hucksters, you know my distaste for cheesy romance is no match for my love of 30s carnie talk!

R-Pattz plays Jacob Jankowski, who begins the film older, as a sad, nostalgic Hal Holbrook pouring his guts out to a stranger, which always makes me go a big rubbery one. OH NO, HE’S HOLDING A BLACK AND WHITE PICTURE!  STAND BACK, THE OLD MAN’S ABOUT TO REMINISCE!  Damn Hal Holbrook and his old sad eyes, they could sell me anything!

Next thing you know, we fall down his quivering jowels into the glowing, Earth-toned, gorgeously-shot 1930s, where R-Pattz plays the young Jankowski, the son of Polish immigrants taking his final exam in Veterinary Science at Cornell.  He’s handsome, young, on the cusp of success, and all the chicks want to do him.  Until all of a sudden (*RECORD SCRATCH*), he gets pulled away from his licensing test (JUST ONE LAST TEST!) to identify his dead parents who just bit it in a car crash.  Soon mean old banker Mr. Hyde shows up (seriously, Bernard from Lost plays a banker named Mr. Hyde) to tell Jacob that the bank is foreclosing on the family farm.  Because somehow a death allows the bank to do that.  So naturally, Jacob quits school and hits the rails like a hobo, as was the fashion at the time, which was The Depression.

“I don’t know if I found that train, or if that train found me.” (direct quote from R-Pattz’ voiceover narration)

Yeah, who would’ve thought you’d find a train while walking along the railroad tracks? Must’ve been fate, or dead-parent magic.  Jacob stows away on the circus train, where he’s taken in by a charming old tramp with a welcoming baritone named “Camel” .  The other tramps want to throw Jacob off the moving train (“red light him” — the film’s casual euphemism for murder), but Camel takes a shine to Jacob on account of he’s a fellow Polack.

Next thing you know, we’re following Jacob through the train in a beautiful tracking shot, through cars filled with midgets! Fat ladies! Freaks! Flirtatious whores! Tigers! Always-in-character clowns! as Camel gives him a crash course in the circus hobo hierarchy and accompanying lingo (“thems is kinks, but a corncob is never allowed to call a kink a kink to his face, unless a jammie does first, or if they’re both in the presence of a jackroller…”).

Oh God, I think I love you, thirties circus hobo train.

Trying to help him find work, Camel takes Jacob to meet the circus headmaster, August, played by Inglourious Basterds‘ Christoph Waltz, who naturally is playing poker and smoking cigars with the other aristocrats.  August nearly has Jacob redlighted for trespassin’ before the kid finally pipes up that he’s a Cornell-trained veterinarian, and perhaps your circus could use one of those, seeing as how your wife Reese Witherspoon is riding around on an injured horse and all?   BY JOVE, YOU’RE RIGHT, CORNELL! COME FALL IN LOVE WITH MY WIFE AND BECOME MY BILL THE BUTCHER-ESQUE PROTEGÉ! DO NOT BETRAY ME!

From there, it’s just a recurring pattern of Christoph Waltz doing something monstrous (like kicking the sh*t out of animals and having like a thousand people thrown off the train, which is apparently easier than firing them in some way that remains unexplained), driving Reese and R-Pattz together, and then coming to his senses and apologizing. Repetitive or not, I could watch Christoph Waltz chew scenery and play the Ike Turner charming sociopath all damn day.  Christoph’s sorry, baby, he only beat that elephant’s ass so bad ’cause he loves you so much.  Sometimes he just gets so scared.

Oh right, the elephant. After her prize horse dies, August buys an elephant for Reese to ride, on which he’s pinned all the circus’ hopes and redlighted like 10 corncobs just to afford.  He puts Jacob in charge of its training, which in 1931 consists mainly of yelling and stabbing it in the side with a sharp stick. Only Jacob is good, and he suspects that there might be a better way to train animals than to shiv them in the ribs like a prison shower.  What this new training method might actually be remains a mystery.  Until one night, R-Pattz discovers that the elephant speaks Polish.  Right, duh. Because the key to training an animal is to just figure out what language it’s already been trained in and hope that your parents are immigrants from the same place.  SO SIMPLE!  NOW R-PATTZ IS A HERO!  DON’T F*CK THIS UP BY SCREWING THE BOSS’S WIFE, CORNELL!

The point is, there is gratuitous elephant porn.  Personally, I could watch elephants squirt liquid and pick things up with their trunks all day (no homo?).  Curiously, the elephant never seems to drink water, as you might guess from the title, only whiskey and lemonade.  Other times, Rosie the elephant breaks loose and runs through the town until they find her eating cabbage from an Italian stereotype’s fruit stand.  “EH, WHAT’S A MATTA FOR YOU! WHO-A GONNA PAY-A FOR-A GUISEPPE’S A-CABBAGE?  MAMA, SHE NO MAKE-A THE PIZZA PIE WITHOUT-A THE FRESH A-CABBAGE!”  And then everyone laughs and feeds the elephant more whiskey, because everyone loves a mischievous elephant and who cares about that dumb old wop’s fruit anyway?  Seriously, if someone made a movie called “ANIMALS STEAL FRUIT FROM ANGRY ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS”, I would watch it for 10 straight hours.

But then Christoph Waltz gets mad at the elephant and stabs it a bunch because he’s the  bad guy.  So R-Pattz, his friend Camel the lovable rummy, and his dignified-midget roommate sneak into the elephant car to fix her back up (by which I mean dump more booze down her trunk).

“If he could do that to one of God’s creatures, imagine what he’d do to you,” says Camel, removing his hat out of respect.  The dignified midget nods, solemn despite his clown make up and tiny policeman suit.  And that’s the thing about Water for Elephants: even when the story is silly and people are spouting hokey lines like, “You’re a beautiful woman, and you deserve a beautiful life,” you know you’re just seconds away from a charming wino, a clown-faced midget, or an elephant, possibly even all three.  It’s the rare case of cinematography and setting winning out over story.

GRADE: B+ (It’s far from a good movie, but I’d watch it again, let’s put it that way)


TAGSCIRCUSELEPHANT PORNELEPHANTSHOBO TRAINSHOBOSreviewsWATER FOR ELEPHANTS

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