Friday, May 21, 2010

....Water For Elephants....

....Water For Elephants tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a sprite 93 when we meet him. Jacob’s escaped from the local old folks' home because he heard there was a circus in town. Of course, these modern doodads they call "circuses" are nothing like the ancient traveling titans of yesteryear, and we can see the disappointment in Jacob's eyes when he watches the methodical business-like approach the circus workers put into their jobs. They don’t have the connection to the craft. It isn't - we gleam from Jacob's eyes - "like it used to be."

When a few workers spot this old fart gumming up their preparation, they call in the authorities. But then Charlie, the circus manager, overhears Jacob mention something about “Benzini Bros.” His ears perk up. Benzini Bros. operated back in the 1930s and was famous for one thing - a historic deadly stampede. Charlie’s only heard this story through secondhand rumors. And here, maybe, supposedly, if this old man is telling the truth, he’s going to get a first hand account of what really happened that day. And so begins Jacob Jankowski's tale.

As a 22 year old in the 30s, Jacob had everything a young man could possibly desire. His two loving parents were veterinarians and he’d just graduated from an Ivy-League school. Despite it being the Depression, he had the pick of any job he pleased. And then, in an unexpected tragedy, his parents died in a car accident. The confused Jacob's world comes crashing down on him. Unsure what to do or where to go, he runs. He doesn't care where. As long as it's away. Figuring he'll hitch a train ride to somewhere far away from here, Jacob leaps into a random boxcar, prepared for a long journey. But he quickly realizes this isn't just any train. This is The Benzini Bros. Traveling Circus.

Jacob is instantly taken by the atmosphere and wants in. Even though this means working as a glorified janitor, cleaning up shit and feeding animals, Jacob's game. But when Uncle Al, the charismatic owner of the show who has a streak darker than the Wicked Witch of the West, catches wind that he has an ivy-league veterinarian on board, he takes Jacob under his wing, giving him access to the spoils of the circus, including all the best animals and all the best acts. Most prominent among them, the devastatingly beautiful Marlena, whose horse act is the star of the show. Jacob falls instantly in love.

Soonafter, Jacob experiences the wonders of the circus, meeting all the crazy characters, the dwarfs, the fire-breathers, the fat ladies. Circuses are their own little universes, and Jacob becomes infatuated with that universe. But when Marlena’s star horse has to be put down, August loses his main act, and if they don’t come up with something to replace it soon, they, like the many other circuses of the Depression era, will go under. Luckily, they come across remnants of one of these belly-up productions, and get their hands on a giant but old "bull elephant" named Rosie.Uncle Al has always wanted an elephant act to compete with the bigger circuses, and now, finally, he has one

But Rosie is as stubborn as they get, refusing to perform even the most basic of tricks, and August, who we begin to realize has an inner rage that rivals Satan himself, takes his frustration out on her nightly, beating the helpless animal so severely, it's a miracle she wakes up in the morning. It is Jacob’s job, after the pounding is over, to go in and treat the wounds, to apologize to Rosie, to promise her he'll prevent it from happening again. In the process, he develops a deep friendship with her.

In the meantime, Jacob finds himself craving more of Marlena. The two steal moments together here and there, but as you’d expect, there are no secrets in a traveling circus. The rumors begin to fly. His friends try and stop him. But Jacob is so deeply in love that logic is no longer a part of his vocabulary. He can’t help himself. It is only when August begins to suspect that something is amiss that Jacob backs off. And even then, he still covets this beauty.

August figures out quickly that the way to stop Jacob isn’t through Jacob, it’s through the things he loves. So it is Rosie who bears the brunt of Jacob’s mistakes, her beatings becoming more violent, more severe. This cycle of violence propels us towards an inevitable showdown with all three characters and a climax that occurs during that historic stampede Charlie was so anxious to learn about. It is an unforgettable ending to an unforgettable story - the kind of thing that movies were made for.

This script rocked me. I mean it was just so good. We feel Jacob’s pain and desperation after losing his parents. We feel Marlena’s perception of her worthlessness. We feel the pure evil inside of August. And yet each of these characters has an additional, almost opposite, layer that provides a depth we don't usually see in screenplays. Jacob’s purity is undermined by his attempts to lure a taken woman. Marlena loves August just as much as she hates him. And August plays the victim just as aggressively as he plays the dictator. These characters are so wonderfully crafted, they should be used in a screenwriting course.

And just from a story perspective, there are so many things that are done right. We have the undercurrent of conflict that comes from two lovers who know they can't be together. We have a bad guy we hate more than our own demons and yet we can’t wait to see what he'll do next. We have a mysterious tragedy hinted at early, which drives our curiosity in how the story ends. We have what could be, if done correctly, one of the most memorable finales ever put to film. And we have one of the most satisfying conclusions to a villain's storyline I’ve ever read. All of this while being steeped in the details of a truly magnificent and fascinating world.

And I mean August. This guy. He’s like Daniel Day Lewis’ character from Gangs of New York, but BETTER, because he has more to work with. His motivations are clearer and he has a dynamic to him that that other character just doesn't have. Whichever actor lands this role is going to have a shot at an Oscar. I mean, I don’t know much about Francis Lawrence other than that he has a cool way of shooting movies, but assuming he does a passable job, this character can become one of the greatest of all time.

I don’t really know what else to say. All I can say is, Robert Pattinson is the luckiest actor in the world for getting a shot to be in this movie. His only job will be not screwing it up. Because the material is better than anything he’s done before and probably anything he'll do after....