A love story set in a Depression-era traveling circus? Involving a handsome young veterinarian, a pretty lady who does tricks atop horses, the lady’s volatile, abusive husband who’s also the circus owner and ringmaster, and an elephant who understands commands in Polish? With colorful narrative assets like these, Sara Gruen’s best-selling historical novel Water for Elephants has always unspooled in the mind’s eye like a good old-fashioned movie. Only now, look! Up on the big screen, here’s Robert Pattinson as veterinary student Jacob Jankowski, brought as if by fate into the hubbub of the Benzini Brothers traveling circus! Here’s Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, the sparkling star attraction! Here’s Inglourious Basterds‘ Christoph Waltz as Marlena’s husband, August, the dangerous impresario! Here’s the lovable elephant! And yet something is wrong under this big tent. Actually made to resemble a good old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing movie, this cinematic Water for Elephants droops and lumbers like Rosie the elephant herself.
It’s odd, the anemia of this production, directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) from a squared-off script by screenwriter Richard LaGravanese (The Horse Whisperer). Inevitably, the movie veers from the novel in various small to medium ways, but not so much that a bookworm would complain. The heart of the story is there: how Jacob’s life changes after his parents die in a car accident, how he finds his way to the Benzini Brothers, how August is even crueler to his circus animals than he is to his wife, and how the tense triangle of Jacob, Marlena, and August leads to a dramatic climax.
Instead, what’s missing is the soul. From scene to scene, and plot point to plot point, nothing connects. Pattinson, Witherspoon, and Waltz perform in separate rings of their three-ring circus. Pattinson, his sleepy-eyed handsomeness styled in the manner of a ’30s matinee idol, looks very manly and elegant even when he’s glistening with grimy sweat and shoveling animal droppings. He gives Jacob an interesting air of watchfulness and reserve. Meanwhile, over in her own corner, dolled up in platinum curls, big eyelashes, and sparkly body-hugging showgirl leotards, Witherspoon interprets Marlena as part bored trophy-wife, part hard showbiz pro, and part lost little girl. None of which allows for much romantic chemistry between the two actors.
Waltz, in his spotlight, bites into his role with an almost manic energy that turns August into more of a cartoon villain than someone spurred to cruelty by tormenting psychological complications. (In the book, another character diagnoses August as a paranoid schizophrenic.) The ringmaster might as well be twirling a mustache or tying Marlena to a railroad tie, so exaggerated is the Evil Face Waltz puts on before August slips into one of his episodes of brutality. Then the director, not one for subtlety, pulls in close for those Evil Face moments, lest we miss the cue.
Water for Elephants makes use of a framing device similar to one the screenwriter used for The Bridges of Madison County: An old Jacob, played by Hal Holbrook, tells his story in flashback to a younger man who represents a new generation of circus operators. (In the book, young Jacob’s story is interspersed with scenes of old Jacob in a nursing home before the old guy leaves the home and finds his way to the young guy’s circus.) From a practical standpoint, those Holbrook bookends are a tried-and-true movie solution to unwrapping a picture and then tying it up neatly at the end with maximum heartstring tugs. But from a ”step right up and see the show” standpoint, Water for Elephants should have sent in the clowns. C+