I introduced a screening of Water For Elephants last night in front of an invited audience of advertisers and media buyers for the Radio Times. This is one of my duties as Film Editor, and one I am more than happy to fulfill. Every three months, we lay on a screening of what we hope will be a talking-point movie and my task is to contextualise and cheerlead, hopefully with a few gags thrown in. (It’s the only stand-up I do now.)
Having provided similar introductions for a number of these screenings, I am in a position to make a sweeping generalisation about last night’s audience for Water For Elephants, the glossy, old-fashioned, Depression-set, circus-themed Hollywood romance starring Robert Pattinson: about 90% of them were female. I dared to assume they weren’t there to see the elephant.
Ah, the phenomenon of Robert Pattinson, or R-Patz as he is clumsily known by young people whose lives are so busy they do not have the time to use five syllables when saying someone’s name! I’ve seen him as Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter, where he made no impact on me whatsoever, and I have also seen him in the Twilight movies, where the entire franchise revolves around his thick-set good looks: the heavy brow, the half-closed eyes, the flat nose, the kissable lips, the square jaw. As Edward Cullen (he’s so sullen), Pattinson achieved more than fame, he achieved mythic status. A bit like Osama bin Laden, he is internationally recognised and is regarded as so much more, and less, than an actual man. (I was on my way through Leicester Square once, and found my way comprehensively blocked by a crowd of screaming girls, who, it transpired, had turned out to catch a glimpse of Pattinson at the Twilight premiere. I am happy to admit, I had no idea why at that time. I understand now.)
Water For Elephants, based on the novel of the same name – although why the studio stuck with such an unappealing title for a film, I’ll never know – is R-Patz’s chance to show the world that he is a leading man who’s not just there for the pale-faced vampirey things in life. Look! He plays a human man! A veterinarian who accidentally runs away with the circus in 1931 and falls in love with Reese Witherspoon, the performer wife of Christoph Woltz’s inglorious bastard of a circus owner, who’s cruel to the animals, especially the new elephant! He smiles! He frowns! He pats an elephant!
Here is the news: he’s not bad. But I fear his career as a non-vampire may require a bit more work before it can flourish. And it’s a rotten film. Although its message is broadly anti-cruelty, its star is an ex-circus elephant who does tricks. As an audience, seduced by the old-fashioned matinee style director Francis Lawrence has cynically cooked up by placing the action in the 1930s when America looked all wooden and cute and poor, we are invited to boo at Woltz when he pokes the poor elephant with a hook, but cheer when R-Patz teaches her to do tricks just by talking nicely to her. Me? I was disturbed when the elephant did tricks. I’m not saying she was taught to do them using cruel methods (I’m sure she wasn’t, this isn’t the 1930s any more), but she’s still a wild animal taught to do tricks for our pathetic benefit.
The film doesn’t work, dramatically, because Woltz is so obviously a baddie, and R-Patz so obviously a goodie – as was often the way in old Hollywood movies, but not in all of them. Clearly, if you want to swoon over R-Patz, you get to see him in a vest, which Reese Witherspoon chastely removes at one point in a 12A kind of sexy way, and you get to see him beaten up quite a lot by bad men, which leaves him with sexy cuts on his face, and this may be enough for the price of admission. I require more, from him, and from a film.
But it’s pretty dumb stuff. And the dialogue is dumber. Twice one of the two young lovers utters the title of a song and is misconstrued to be making a declaration of love. And one character who likes a drink actually say something like, “Boo hoo, I wish there wasn’t Prohibition,” to help us understand that this was the age of Prohibition, and then he explains what Prohibition is, in case R-Patz fans are stupid. Which I’m not saying they are.
Luckily, his next film is the fourth Twilight movie, in which he will be Edward Sullen again, mooning away at the very edges of his acting ability. He is worth £13 million, or he was in last year’s Sunday Times Rich List; I expect that’s up a bit by now. He’s not so dumb.