Watching a movie like Water for Elephants, knowing that it's not only based on a novel but on a best-selling novel that was all the rage for book clubs, makes me wonder about the book -- specifically, how bad is it?
The movie, after all, is a trite romantic drama, built from the kind of clichés that I thought went out of literary favor long ago: people plunged into colorful milieus where beauty hides a harsh cruelty; men suddenly overcome with romantic feelings for women who are obviously all wrong for them; women in thrall to men who only want to control them; a scrum of colorful sidekicks with tragic shortcomings -- and, of course, a plot that goes nowhere except exactly where you expect.
It's a circus -- it's the Depression -- all bets on plot logic and plausibility are off. This is a world, after all, where everyone gets along great once you've survived the hazing and initiation (except when the boss is feeling strapped for cash -- then everyone is fair game for being tossed off the moving circus train).
The audience's surrogate -- in order words, the hero with stupidly romantic ideas about how life should be and little sense of self-preservation -- is the euphoniously named Jacob Jankowski, played by the woefully untalented Robert Pattinson. Jacob sees his entire world turned inside out in the course of a single day. He's actually sitting in class at Cornell University, taking the final exams that will be the culmination of his schooling as a veterinarian -- when he's yanked out of class and told his future has disappeared.
Specifically, his parents have been killed in a car accident -- in the short time since he left home to head for school to take his final. And now the bank is ready to foreclose on the family's property and his father's vet practice because Dad was behind on his bills. So Jacob walks away from the education that bankrupted his parents BEFORE HE FINISHES THE FINAL! What else would any sane literary character caught in the middle of a Depression do?
He hits the road -- having just chucked his entire career -- and hops a train that turns out to be owned by a struggling circus, the Benzini Brothers. Rather than chuck him out, the roustabouts take him in, then help him woo the vicious ringmaster and company manager, August (Christoph Waltz) for a job. When August discovers that Jacob is actually an Ivy League-educated vet (how many of those hop trains like hoboes?), he offers him full-time work.
Jacob finds himself drawn to August's trick-riding wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and August notices their sparks. Hard not to, given that August is looking for it -- and doing everything he can to drive Marlena into Jacob's arms (including being mean to the animals and the human employees).
It's all quite dreadful: syrupy music, maudlin sentiments, that bogus blend of the tawdry and the fantastic that can't seem to live without each other in movie depictions of circus life. And it all rests on the head of the sleepy-eyed Pattinson, an actor so lifeless that you keep expecting someone to put a mirror to his nostrils. Oh wait - wrong movie.
But seriously: Pattinson had better hope that someone writes a whole bunch more of the Twilight novels because once those movies run out, his string as a movie star is probably up. He has no discernible talent as an actor, beyond a bedroom gaze that seems to express very little of what's on his mind. Or maybe there's just so little there to express. He's as vacant an actor to star in a series of movies since the rise of Keanu Reeves.
Having seen this movie, I can't imagine reading Water for Elephants. Indeed, it makes me think less of the people who have. And I can't imagine anyone who read the book being able to stomach this snore of a movie.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Marshall Fine