The Elephant King: Thai'd Up in Knots

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:09

    The Elephant King Directed by Seth Grossman at Angelika Film Center Running Time: 92 min.

    Just because an innocent American dude lands in a foreign country doesn’t mean they have a riveting story to tell. That is, unless you’re Henry James or Sofia Coppola. And lacking either the gravitas of James or the empathetic ennui of Lost in Translation, The Elephant King is just a high-drama tale of two Americans in Thailand.

    Loner Oliver (Tate Ellington) flies over to Thailand in an effort to convince his older brother Jake (Jonno Roberts) to come home. But on the lam from a college that’s taking him to court over some forged papers, Jake is in no hurry to return to a court date or his overbearing mother (Ellen Burstyn). And after just a day in Thailand, Oliver starts to see the allure of living on the other side of the world with his very cool older brother.

    Of course, it helps that Jake’s friend Lek (Florence Faivre) takes a very personal interest in Oliver. And while Jake is out carousing, gulping whiskey and popping adrenaline pills, Oliver starts falling for the gorgeous Lek, much to the dismay of his mother, who just wants both her sons back under her thumb.

    Turning Thailand into a sea of neon-lit bars and jarringly foreign images juxtaposed with the country’s natural beauty, writer-director Seth Grossman doesn’t make much of a case for leaving America to find happiness there. Rather, the Thailand of The Elephant King comes across as a particularly seedy Disney World, a place that grown men can retreat to and act like children.

    The sensitive and slightly uptight Oliver, however, refuses to indulge in the easy pleasures of paying for sex. Flattered by all the attention Lek pays him, he starts falling for her, while a pet elephant of Jake’s lumbers through scenes as a particularly cumbersome metaphor for these two Americans abroad. And by the time Jake tells Oliver, in a voice weighted with meaning, that the elephant died because “we didn’t take care of it,” The Elephant King has distinctly outstayed its welcome.

    At least the performances can’t be faulted for the slightly threadbare story being told. Ellington is sweet and clueless as the naïve Oliver, but he’s completely overshadowed by Roberts’ grandstanding as the wild Jake, a hard-living guy who prefers wandering around sans shirt in the tropical climate. More than once, we see him driving like a bat out of hell through brightly colored streets at night, screaming into the wind and riding out the effects of whatever booze and drugs he’s poured into his system. If Oliver had spent less time locked in his room writing about the adventures he assumed his brother was having, and more time reading Henry James novels, he’d be better equipped to understand that Jake should serve as a cautionary tale for ditching one’s moral compass in an exotic locale. And if Grossman had found something more to say about life in Thailand other than that almost any attractive woman there can be had for money, The Elephant King might have more potency.