Set in a Depression-era circus and featuring some decent performances, Water for Elephants is good enough to recommend but nothing to get all super hyped about. If you like elephants, and you like Reese Witherspoon movies, have at it. If you’d rather golf than watch a Witherspoon movie, book your tee times now.
Featuring a central Robert Pattinson performance that’s endearing if not all that amazing, and a Reese Witherspoon performance that, while not remarkable, is better than anything she has done in years, the film moves along at a pleasant enough pace. It’s further helped by a villainous performance from Christoph Waltz, now Hollywood’s go-to guy when they need a good scumbag.
This doesn’t sound like high praise, and it’s not meant to be. This story of a forbidden love affair under a circus tent is the very definition of passable entertainment. I was slightly moved by it, and realized when it was over that I sort of liked it a little bit. Sometimes movies are just that: something I sort of like a little bit.
In a role that isn’t much of a departure from his tween vampire alter-ego Edward Cullen, Pattinson plays Jacob, a veterinary student who loses his parents to a car crash. When the bank takes the family home, he jumps a train and winds up doing hard labor for a ragtag circus run by the slightly crazy August (Waltz). The star attraction is a horse ridden by August’s wife, Marlena (Witherspoon). Of course, Jacob takes a shine to her.
Pattinson looking forlornly at the married Marlena certainly reminds me of his puppy dog yearning for Bella in the Twilight movies. He has the lovesick routine down just fine, but perhaps he should pick a project that has him playing with toy trains or trying to win a regional soccer championship the next time out. He needs to cheer up and do something different on the big screen soon.
As for his chemistry with Witherspoon, it’s nearly non-existent. They are not convincing as a couple, and their interactions are rather flat, with most of the lubby-dubby tension coming from the Pattinson side. Witherspoon is just sort of traipsing through the role with little effort. Still, it’s better than the confused performance she threw out there for last year’s awful How Do You Know.
Waltz, who is in danger of becoming typecast, brings his all to the role of August. Richard LaGravenese’s script seems to have underwritten his character a tad. At times, it looks as if Waltz is trying to make August somewhat sympathetic, but it’s not enough to make him a fleshed-out, conflicted character. His nice moments are more of a distraction than any indicator August might have any real depth.
The true star of the movie is an ancient elephant, named Rosie in the film, that’s nothing short of beautiful. I love that elephant look when her mouth is open and it seems as though she’s laughing at the silly humans around her. Honestly, this could have been two hours of Rosie doing tricks and drinking people’s booze, and I would have been equally satisfied.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has made a visually impressive film, capturing the splendor of the circus while not altogether avoiding the fact that it is a bit rundown and starved for cash. The movie is framed Titanic style, with an old Jacob (played by Hal Holbrook) telling his story to a modern day circus operator (Paul Schneider). Old pro Holbrook gives the movie some of the emotional punch it needs.
Water for Elephants reminded me of the circus viewing experiences I had when I was a kid. The animals were kind of cool, the people were a little boring, and it went on a bit too long. Still, there was always something at the circus very much worth seeing. Even with its shortcomings, I was sort of glad I watched the film.