Critical Mass: 'Water for Elephants' fails to please all of the critics, all of the time
"Old-fashioned" is the phrase critics are using most often to describe "Water for Elephants," the big-screen adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. Because film critics are notorious for constantly bemoaning the current state of cinema, you'd think this would mean they'd be lapping up this "Water" like a herd of thirsty elephants. Instead, they're lukewarm about the adult romance and are even more skeptical about heartthrob Pattinson's chops outside his "Twilight" vampire franchise machine.
The Times' Kenneth Turan, who helpfully spells out the changes between the novel and the film adaptation, was particularly enchanted by the setting. He writes, "The romance of the carnival is strong in this film, and it's not too much to say that it's the element viewers will come away remembering most." He takes a less starry-eyed view of the supposed romance at the heart of the movie: "Director Francis Lawrence, who works in music videos as well as features, has an unmistakable gift for bravura spectacle, but the absence of convincing romantic chemistry means that the emotional connection that should be this film's birthright is not really there."
Richard Corliss really wanted to like the movie. He seems to be actively rooting for the film, which he calls "a flashback to Hollywood's midcentury." But beyond the carnival barker's call and the smell of midway sawdust, there's one essential flaw he can't overlook. "A love story has a major flaw if it doesn't convey that the two main characters are really in love.... Though her character echoes Dietrich's name and is outfitted in Jean Harlow's blond mane and white gowns, Witherspoon offers no hint of the sultry or sensual; she's the nice soccer mom somebody stuck on top of an elephant. I watched her and thought of Amy Poehler."
Roger Ebert seemed more patient with the film, which he calls "endearingly old fashioned." But it's not the romance that seems to have lassoed Ebert's thumb as much as the threat represented by the jealous, abusive circus owner played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. He writes, "Shorter than Pattinson, indeed hardly taller than Witherspoon, he rules over everyone as a hard-bitten taskmaster whose easy charm conceals a cold inner core; it's the same dynamic he used as the merciless Nazi in 'Inglourious Basterds.' He's much given to offering champagne toasts with a knife hidden inside."
But that's just the guys talking. As a romance, starring the world's most lusted-after part-time vampire, "Water for Elephants" should play better with female critics, right? Right?
Don't tell that to Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams. She watched the film to see if Pattinson could still charm the ladies now that he's moving beyond his adolescent appeal. The answer, she finds, is a resounding no. She writes, "But the problem isn't just miscasting or the cheesiness of the material. It's Pattinson's increasingly predictable, dour persona." She then goes on to compare Pattinson to his former "Harry Potter" castmaste Daniel Radcliffe. "Pattinson may have the male model good looks and the serious new movie, but it's Radcliffe, bravely flailing around in a bow tie, who seems the more evolved performer."
Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum isn't charmed either. She writes, "Actually made to resemble a good old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing movie, this cinematic 'Water for Elephants' droops and lumbers like Rosie the elephant herself."
Elizabeth Weitzman, writing in the New York Daily News, says that Waltz makes his co-stars look like "hesitant kids," but he recommends the movie anyway. "Fortunately, there's enough going on at the edges to distract us from the main event. Lawrence takes great care to convey the 1930s feel, and does capture some of the book's poignant vision of a tattered era."
And what about that elephant? According to Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeffrey Wells, "the elephant (called Rosie in the film) is definitely the best thing about it."
Seems like it's a good weekend to visit the zoo.
--Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in "Water for Elephants." Credit: David James / 20th Century Fox