Life Is The Most Spectacular Show On Earth

Francis Lawrence

Reese Witherspoon
Robert Pattinson
Christoph Waltz

Through flashback, we’re introduced to 1930’s America, suffering under prohibition and depression. Young Jacob Jankowski [Pattinson] is in the middle of taking his final veterinary exam when he is notified of his parent’s death. As with most families of that period, money was sparse and in the event of the Jankowski’s death, ownership of the family house is defaulted to the bank. Subsequently, Jacob is left homeless and refuses to go back to finish schooling, instead he proceeds to walk to the next town, looking for work. In the middle of the night, Jacob spots a train and spontaneously decides to hop on. The next morning, he discovers the train is in fact a travelling circus called The Benzini Brothers. After observing a day in the life of the circus, Jacob is brought before the owner, the surprisingly charming August Rosenbluth [Waltz], who acknowledges they could use an in-house vet and agrees to keep him on. As the story progresses, August purchases a new star act – in the form of an elephant named Rosie – to work with his wife, Marlena [Witherspoon]. As animal-liaison, Jacob is given the task of training Rosie but August quickly steps in utilising his vicious, heavy-handed technique. Working closely with Rosie and Marlena, Jacob starts to care deeply for both of them – a fact which August soon catches on to.

First thing to get out of the way, the structure is pretty much stolen from Titanic – yes, I realise Water For Elephants is based on an original novel and the whole flashback thing is a classic formula but the way in which it has been presented on screen draws incredible similarities: the whole, “What are you up to, old timer? Feel like telling me a story about something I’m already familiar with?” “You don’t know nothing, kid. Let me tell you what it was like..” blah blah blah. That said, Lawrence is a very visual director and with his third film he has managed to produce something stunningly impressive (visually) with a keen attention to detail and exceptional production value – as all decent period flicks warrant. Over the years James Newton Howard has produced an array of decent scores for various films ranging from wholly unforgettable melodies to .. well .. Space Jam. His effort here is not exactly one of his most notable but certainly fits the bill, often shining during moments of tension or building suspense.

The acting by all involved is equally praiseworthy, from the leads, to the supports, to the trained animals – everyone fills their roll efficiently. But it’s in the analysis of the acting that the glaring flaws of this film start to show. As much as each character seems perfectly cast (Pattinson as the unassuming young upstart, Waltz embodying both charismatic and terrifying elements perfectly and Witherspoon as an oppressed woman hoping for a way out but convinced of failure) they never really gelled together. Watching the three of them on screen, you get an impression of how the characters fit and that the actors are playing them flawlessly but you never really believe the situation. It may sound silly but when an audience is unhappy with a performance but can’t actually narrow down what they dislike specifically, it usually has something to do with how the characters interact with one another; nobody’s fault but a great hindrance on the film.

As with Francis Lawrence’s previous films (Constantine and I Am Legend), the effort is good, the story starts off well but the ending is a tad dissatisfying. Visually, Lawrence utilises his years as a music video director to harness several wonderful shots and beautifully arranged/edited scenarios but he still seems plagued by the dénouement. That said, he has shown vast improvement (as has Mr. Pattinson) and this is a solid family film – albeit somewhat violent and mildly raunchy in places, so when I say family film, I don’t mean children’s film.

Release Date:
6th May 2011

The Scene To Look Out For:
I would probably say Jacob’s first tour of the circus was one of the highlights of the film. Combining a sense of wonder and mystery while establishing the disparaging life of the thirties drifters. Well shot, decently acted, nicely edited – it’s altogether rather impressive.

Notable Characters:
Just a character query here. There’s sort of spoilers but I don’t really think so, so whatever. According to the original novel, August is a violently paranoid schizophrenic. I don’t have a problem with that, Waltz flips back-and-forth so seamlessly that you would wholly agree. My main problem is that he was right. Not with the violence or the animal beatings or the ruthlessness (…well, maybe the ruthlessness) but his wife was going to leave him. Sure, he probably drove her away with his madness but she was sort of cheating on him. So as paranoid and schizo as he may have been.. I dunno, just thought I’d bring it up. As stated, Pattinson and Waltz do well here and it’s always nice to see Jim Norton in action, so that was a treat.

Highlighted Quote:
“You’re a beautiful woman, you deserve a beautiful life”

In A Few Words:
“A pleasant adaptation that favours story and character development over unnecessary spectacle – making for a thoroughly welcome surprise”

Total Score: