(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence
Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.
A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.
Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.
He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.
His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.
Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.
The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.
Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.
Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.
Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.
There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.
REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.
REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.
HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10