For a movie that aspires to please “The Notebook” crowd, the film “Water for Elephants” isn’t much of a tear jerker.
It is, however, a pretty interesting little period piece about circus life. And for that, “Elephants” works, despite its plodding and predictable love triangle. This is a movie that, when the focus is on life under the big top, is quite engaging and just good enough to be a mildly surprising spring diversion.
Robert Pattinson of “Twilight” fame stars as Jacob, an Ivy League veterinary student in the early 1930s who abandons his life after his parents die in a car accident.
He hops on a train and finds himself in the middle of a traveling circus, run by the charming but stern August (Christoph Walz). Jacob talks his way into a job, helping to train a recently purchased elephant. While working with the animal, he strikes up a relationship with the show’s equestrian act star Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who happens to be married to August.
If you’ve ever seen a romantic film, you’ll have a pretty good idea where this is headed. Based on a popular book by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants” unfolds in a rather hokey straightforward still.
Still, under the visual eye of director Francis Lawrence (who got his start directing music videos for Britney Spears and Aerosmith, among others), the hokiness has a pizzazz that keeps it moving along at an amiable clip.
I really enjoyed the behind-the-scenes circus life moments, which snap off the screen with a flair that really fits its subject.
The male leads are also interesting. This is easily Pattinson’s best work of his young career, showing a charm and charisma that was never really there in the “Twilight” franchise. I believe this does a better job of making him a romantic lead than those previous three films combined.
Walz is also very good, reminding me of a young Dennis Hopper with his borderline psychotic portrayal.
Witherspoon is the weakest link of the three leads, despite her best efforts. I never quite bought her as the aging circus queen married to Walz’s character and her chemistry with Pattinson is tepid at best.
In fact, Pattinson probably has better on screen chemistry with the film’s 2-ton mammal. Then again, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise because this is a film that is at its best when showcasing the business known as “the greatest show on earth.” Romances may come and go, but you don’t get to see too many old-fashioned circus films. Fortunately, “Elephants” delivers enough to fill that void.
DVD dud of the week
This week’s dud is “The Dilemma” (D), a Ron Howard comedy that is a serious misfire due to one critical error: It’s not funny.
Despite the presence of Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder, this is a film that takes some rather serious and dark subject matter and tries to mix it with screwball comedic situations, resulting in a horribly uneven and uncomfortable experience.
Vaughn and James play best friends and business colleagues whose friendship is tested when Ronny (Vaughn) catches Nick’s wife (Ryder) with another man (Channing Tatum). Ronny isn’t sure what to do with this information, keeping it from everyone, including his fianc/e (Connelly). As the pressure mounts, Ronny scrambles to make the decision. Does he tell his friend or does he just keep it a secret forever ?
If “The Dilemma” had stuck with that basic premise, it would have been tricky, but I think it could have been pulled off. The problem is the film continues to pile on plot twists that take the story in darker places (Ronny’s previous gambling problem is just one example) and the film just grows increasingly uncomfortable.
There are too many stretches where the film veers wildly between taking itself seriously and trying to be a goofball buddy comedy. After a while it becomes painful and awkward to watch.
Vaughn is just doing his usual character, while James continues to be a bland leading actor. Ryder’s character does some pretty reprehensible things that make her completely unlikable. Connelly fares the best, but she feels like she is in another movie.
Speaking of another movie, a small role by Queen Latifah feels wedged in - bringing nothing to the film.
It’s kind of the story of “The Dilemma,” which is the cinematic equivalent of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
“The Dilemma” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving sexual content.