Sunday, April 24, 2011
How NOT To Fall In Love With The Circus
And yes, I know that I've romanticized the circus.
I understand that in my own mind I've probably made the circus much kinder and gentler than it really is.
I feel that this is the result of two experiences in my early years:
1) As a child I saw Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show On Earth on the big screen. The movie was produced, directed and narrated by the great Mr. DeMille and it starred James Stewart, Cornel Wilde, Charleton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton and Gloria Grahame. It was a big, showy spectacle built around love, romance, danger, mystery and show biz. In the New York Times the premier movie critic of the day, Bosley Crowther called the film a "lusty triumph of circus showmanship and movie skill" and a "piece of entertainment that will delight movie audiences for years". And so it did.
Along the way the movie won Oscars as Best Picture and for Best Story.
It made a tremendous impression on me.
2) Again, as a child I was a regular member of the live audience every Saturday morning for the national broadcast of CBS-TV's The Big Top which was televised from Camden, NJ. My father worked at Camden Convention Hall which is where The Big Top broadcast took place each week. The show featured many circus acts from all over the world as well as a permanent cast that included Jack Sterling, Dan Lurie, Ed McMahon and Chris Keegan.
Those are Saturday mornings I shall never forget.
So, I'm emotionally tied to the circus.
Which is why I really, really wanted to like the new movie Water For Elephants.
This story revolves around a veterinary student who abandons his studies after his parents are killed and joins a traveling circus as their vet. Robert Pattison plays the student turned circus vet. Reese Witherspoon plays the love interest who is also the circus owner's wife and the key performer in the main animal act under the big top. Christoph Waltz plays the tyrannical circus owner, husband and ringmaster.
Many critics have said that Witherspoon is miscast in this role. Yes, she seems out of her element and strangely disconnected from the character and the story. But I'm hardly one to make a definitive determination on that as I've never been a huge Witherspoon fan.
Robert Pattison remains young and virile throughout but that's hardly enough to sustain a big budget movie like this. His performance exhibits very little depth.
And that leaves Christoph Waltz to obnoxiously chew up all the surrounding scenery, which he nearly does.
The setup is all too obvious from the beginning and the plot never thickens.
On top of all that the music is loud, way too obvious and unending.
Still, the movie is at times beautiful to watch as it evokes a bygone era and a lost form of near-spontaneous entertainment -- one that really was under a Big Top. And it's great to see the marvelous Hal Holbrook on the big screen once again. Other standouts include Mark Provinelli and Jim Norton.
This is big, old-fashioned Hollywood movie making with a clear narrative based on a hugely successful novel. And I can't say that it doesn't have its charms or that it totally lacks appeal because it moves along at a fairly nice pace and carries a certain grandeur with it. What's more, the elephant will almost certainly tug at your heart. And, I'm a sucker for movies about the 1930s anyway.
But precisely because this film is so big and has been so widely anticipated we're left somewhat disappointed.