There have been a plethora of films set in a circus. However most of them are from the mid 20th Century or earlier. Such stars as Martin & Lewis, the Marx Brothers, Charley Chaplin, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Elvis Presley all come to mind as having performed in a circus movie.
For me, the best circus movie is still The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) which was a Cecil B. DeMille production. For me, that one captured every essence of the Big Show – from the peanuts to the sawdust, from the trapeze artists to the clowns; this was a film that had every thing that are the staples of modern film – romance, mystery, suspense, thrills, and even sadness. The ony thing TGSOE lacked was the smell of the elephant shit.
Well, they can add another brand new one to the list. This film is a top-of-the-list-wannabe, but it is not quite that worthy. Of course I am referring to Water for Elephants which opened today, April 22, 2011. The film is directed by Francis Lawrence and stars Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christopher Walz, and a marvelous elephant named Tia who performs as Rosie on screen.
If you’re ready to say that this looks and sounds like it will be a love triangle, ala Titanic, set in the second rate Benzini Bros. Circus – you’d be right. But the film is so much more than that, and at the same time a bit less.
Who’s that woman that works with the horses?
That ain’t no woman. That’s the boss’s wife. She don’t talk to nobody. And you don’t talk to her.
And so it begins. The triangle. The film actually begins with Hal Holbrook as the elderly Jacob reminiscing about his life in the circus. Robert Pattinson plays the younger version of the Jacob character. Jacob, as a young man, is a Cornell University student of veterinary medicine. He’s called out of class and given some bad news. Soon after he’s desolate, he’ll become a drop-out, and he decides to hop a train out of town as hobos had been known to do. Turns out that this is the Benzini Bros. Circus train.
He’s hired by the circus, first as a roustabout, you know – to work with a shovel, then he’s asked to help with the circus animals (given his background as a veterinary medicine student). Circus life is not as idyllic as we may have thought it was. It is a nomadic existence with the circus playing a never ending cycle of one-stands in town after town. The circus family was an ever-changing collection of misfits and freaks, dreamers and schemers, layabouts and roustabouts as well as hustlers and cheats. In short, the circus was always on the move. Put up the tent, take down the tent, and do it again tomorrow in another town.
The film has lovingly recreated not only the circus milieu, but this circus with its traveling menagerie, is set in the Depression Era of the 1930’s which also has been masterfully reproduced on screen for us. From the costumes to the street scenes which included the architecture of the time with the old fashioned poles with the telephone wires that were found in every small town – Main Street, USA, circa 1930’s lives once more.
This particular circus was a something of a cut-rate circus to start with, and now was trying to weather yet another financial crisis. The circus boss and owner, August (played by the excellent Christopher Walz) found new and unusual (as well as horrifying) ways to cut payroll when he had to. He was also married to Reese Witherspoon’s Marlena, the blonde centerpiece of both the film and this one-ring circus. When August buys a new elephant, cue Rosie’s entrance, the idea is for Marlena to abandon her horseback act and work with the elephant.
Complications set in when Jacob is smitten by Marlena’s looks and Rosie decides she likes Jacob better than August. However, August is nobody’s fool. He notices things, and his suspicions are aroused. When he gets even more evidence, he’s going to take it out on everyone including the circus animals. Walz brings a powerful duality to the role. He can be charming, or he can be very cruel which meshes perfectly with the fact that he’s insanely jealous. He has a viscious streak to him, that is terrifying. Instead of Jacob and Marlena as well as Rosie going their separate ways – August actually creates enough tension and fear so that they’re actually drawn closer to each other.
That’s what we see. That’s what the script calls for. Unfortunately, what we see relies on our imagination, because there’s almost no chemistry at all between Pattinson’s Jacob and Witherspoon’s Marlena. This is a major stumbling block for viewers, as you just can’t get past the fact that what you see doesn’t match what you’re asked to believe.
Beyond that the story is a little old. We’ve learned from the trailer, that the Benzini Bros. circus had one of the worst disasters in the history of circuses. So we have to wait for that. We also see, as expected, that Rosie the elephant is going to be lovable, smart, endearing, and will steal every scene she’s in if not the whole movie.
The script also softens the circus life, takes the sexual heat, that existed in Sara Gruen’s best selling novel which was the source for this film, out of the film, and then further disappoints with some CGI effects that seem a tad cheap. While what you see in terms of locations and sets does a terrific job of showing us a circus on screen, this film about a big top circus is certainly not the greatest show on earth.