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"Water for Elephants" surprisingly entertaining

Posted: April 27, 2011 - 5:59pm

Ten years ago, I would have a tough time admitting I liked Freddie Prinze Jr. rom-coms. Now? I am on record admitting not only that I enjoy the man’s work, but that he has a nickname of endearment in my world (it saves time to just call him “FPJ”). More recently, I have added an ABC Family melodrama geared toward teenage girls to the DVR (“Make it or Break it”); the show follows a group of elite gymnasts in Colorado as they deal with being backstabbing, teenage girls while simultaneously vying for spots on the Olympic team. It is worse than it sounds, and I love it.

Stephenie Meyer’s vampire books and the subsequent movies? I have read them and seen them (and will see the last two when they are released). I am cool with all of the above. Forbidden love stories are just as much of a guilty pleasure as rom-coms. So I am not sure, then, why I feel a little unsure about this: I liked “Water for Elephants.”

There are plenty of reasons I should be complaining about spending 120 minutes watching 24 year-old Robert Pattinson (Jacob) pine after 35 year-old Reese Witherspoon (Marlena). Ms. Witherspoon is gorgeous, don’t misunderstand me. Still, she’s a grown, mature woman. (I am trying to say here, ladies, she ain’t old! She is, however, older than Mr. Pattinson. I’m not saying. I’m just saying.) Mr. Pattinson is going to be 17 forever!

No, wait. Sorry, that is not accurate. Edward Cullen (the fictional vampire heartthrob created by the previously mentioned Meyer) will be 17 forever. Mr. Pattinson will be 25 in May. Whatever. The age gap is hard not to notice. Despite that, the chemistry between the two leads rang true enough to me. I might be in the minority there, and that is always where the road forks for a flick like “Water for Elephants.” There might be a circus and its collection of wild people and animals, and there might be the automatic intrigue of setting the story during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but “Water for Elephants” only succeeds or fails on the shoulders of Mr. Pattinson and Ms. Witherspoon.

I vote that it succeeds. If you take the other direction in that fork in the road, “Water for Elephants” cannot win. The wig Ms. Witherspoon sports will bug you every time you see it. I would understand, too. If it is her real hair, she needs a new product because it looks like it would scratch your skin if you touched it. I was waiting for Mr. Pattinson to wince when it scraped his face. If you take that other direction in that fork in the road, you will also find the sex scene even more awkward than the folks in my camp. It is not graphic, but it is steamy enough. What makes it awkward, though, is how exceptionally quiet it is. As our two leads are going about their business, director Francis Lawrence chooses these moments to be the only ones in the whole film where James Newton Howard’s score is not around. I could hear people around me chewing, breathing, and squirming uncomfortably.

We were all watching a love scene together. It was quiet. It was weird. Weirder, I’m sure, if you were already of the opinion that “Water for Elephants” was not working.

I bought Mr. Pattinson and Ms. Witherspoon, though. That allowed me to enjoy the other positives as well. Christoph Waltz (the Oscar winner from “Inglourious Basterds”) is scary good at portraying Marlena’s controlling, paranoid, circus leading, violent husband, August. Hal Holbrook, playing “Old Jacob,” continues to be a fine wine. The backdrop of a traveling circus during the Great Depression is automatically fascinating. And I dare you not to fall in love just a little bit with Rosie the elephant.

I liked it. I admit it. I am even giving Mr. Pattinson a pass for having the gall to play a character named Jacob.

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