Thursday Trailer Face-Off! Water for Elephants vs. Passion Play


Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week, it’s Water for Elephants versus Passion Play, two films about high drama under the big top, the pretty ladies who star in the circus, and the romantic triangles they can’t seem to help but generate.

Circuses are having a bit of a moment right now, aren’t they? Just last month in this space, we highlighted Mexican circus documentary Circo; last fall, PBS put out a well-received six-part doc about the Big Apple Circus (available to view online); and the next few weeks bring both Water for Elephants, out tomorrow, and Passion Play, due out May 6. (We’d also like to recommend Nightmare Alley, a twisted novel about a carny, out from NYRB Classics last spring.) Anyway, Water for Elephants is based on the hit novel by Sara Gruen; it’s about Jacob (Robert Pattinson; don’t think the irony of his character’s name has escaped us), a veterinary student who takes a job caring for the animals owned by the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He falls in love with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a beautiful equestrian—and must contend with her husband, August (Christoph Waltz). Passion Play stars Mickey Rourke as Nate, a jazz musician who also ends up by chance in the environs of a circus and who also falls in love with a pretty lady there: Lily, the Bird Woman, played by Megan Fox. He, too, must grapple with an antagonistic, possibly psychotic obstacle: Happy Shannon (Bill Murray). These plots are so similar that it’s hard to choose, but we’ll go with Water for Elephants since its plot also hinges on a feisty elephant, and elephants are great for film, from Dumbo to Operation Dumbo Drop. Also, it seems more resistant to making its female lead an obvious Manic Pixie Dream Girl who exists solely for the male lead to project his own psychological business onto. (Passion Play‘s plot summary on Wikipedia explains, “Nate is protective and understanding, and to him her beauty makes her unique,” which, what is that even supposed to mean?!) Advantage: Water for Elephants

Each of these films basically has three stars: the lovelorn regular guy, the unattainable girl, and the psycho circus man. Let’s start off by putting Robert Pattinson and Megan Fox on equal footing: they’re both A-list stars who made their names on big-money franchises but have never been in an especially good movie; both are beloved by the opposite sex almost as universally as they’re hated by their own. So they cancel each other out. Next up, Christoph Waltz and Bill Murray: while Waltz has a well-deserved Oscar, he’s only been a known entity to Hollywood for two years, while Murray has over 30 years of experience under his belt—but just an Oscar nom, no win. We’d say they’re about equal, too. Finally, Reese Witherspoon and Mickey Rourke. While Witherspoon has successfully walked the line (ha!) between romantic-comedy star and bona fide dramatic actress, her Best Actress Oscar win was still something of a WTF moment for those of us who remember her best for Legally Blonde and Cruel Intentions. Rourke’s renaissance has been fun to watch—though, like his costar Murray, he lost a Best Actor Oscar to Sean Penn (in 2009 and 2003, respectively—we wonder whether Murray and Rourke ever knocked back a few beers on set and trash-talked Penn). We’re going to call this a draw, too, only because it wasn’t so long ago that Witherspoon starred in How Do You Know, a movie so bad our best friend walked out of it. Plus, we personally gouged our own eyes out during Four Christmases, just for something more fun to do. Advantage: Draw

Supporting Cast
Besides Fox, Murray, and Rourke, Passion Play includes Kelly Lynch (Drugstore Cowboy) and Rhys Ifans (who also stars in that crazy Shakespeare movie we can’t wait for). Water for Elephants features cute-as-a-button Tony winner Hal Holbrook (All the President’s Men, Into the Wild) as the 90-year-old version of Pattinson’s character, as well as a bunch of decent TV and character actors. Cinching the category, though, is Paul Schneider, one of the most talented and underappreciated actors of his generation, whom we have admired in everything from Bright Star to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (whose score this trailer reuses, incidentally) to Parks and Recreation. He rules. Advantage: Water for Elephants

Frankly, more seems to happen in Passion Play. Mickey Rourke first descends upon the circus because “Some men tried to kill me.” Then a bunch of other people try to, it seems, mostly at the behest of Murray’s character. He has sex with the winged Megan Fox! He punches through a glass wall! Shots are fired! Paparazzi! Fox cries and tugs at her wings! (This last, it must be noted, is very Black Swan.) By contrast, Water for Elephants seems more subdued: Pattinson wanders around near the circus train; Witherspoon rolls around on a horse; Waltz and Witherspoon kiss; Pattinson and Witherspoon kiss; the elephant does a headstand. Yawn. Where’s Waltz’s gun? Advantage: Passion Play

Passion Play is Mitch Glazer’s directorial debut. It’s said to be a two-decade passion project (oh, we see what he did there!) for Glazer, who has worked as a screenwriter for years; he penned Scrooged and Great Expectations, among others, and associate-produced Lost in Translation. Francis Lawrence, of Water for Elephants, has previously directed Constantine and I Am Legend, so we’re not sure what to make of that. He’s also directed a slew of music videos including classics like Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” Backstreet Boys’ “The Call”(!), Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave for You,” and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” If we could be assured that any of those songs had made its way into Water for Elephants, we’d hand him the category, but since we can’t, it’s too close to call. Advantage: Draw

Based on the trailers, at least, both of these films look beautiful. (Compare the amazing lighting in the car at 0:52 in Passion Play to the amazing lighting in the train at 0:59 in Water for Elephants. Dang!) And they should: each was photographed by one of the better cinematographers working today. Rodrigo Prieto (Water for Elephants) has worked fruitfully with Alejandro González Iñ    árritu (on Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, among others), as well as with Ang Lee (Lust, Caution and Brokeback Mountain). Christopher Doyle (Passion Play) has worked for Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park) and Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love), among many others. Both are pretty much unimpeachable. Advantage: Draw

The Verdict
We’ve never had so many categories end in a draw before—lots of aspects of the two films really do seem more or less evenly matched. But Water for Elephants wins by a point, and it seems with good reason: a quick peek at early reviews for the two films reveals that even Water for Elephants‘ mediocre reviews (“Like The Notebook, but with an elephant,” offers the Chicago Tribune) are enough to trounce the reaction audiences offered Passion Play when it premiered at Toronto. “If the degree of laughter at the wrong moments and the number of walkouts at the Toronto International Film Festival are any indication, the film will appeal only to the most fondly indulgent,” The Hollywood Reporter said. Ouch. Winner: Water for Elephants