All wet

Water for Elephants

It’s true love, and she’ll never forget you.

It’s true love, and she’ll never forget you.

Rated 2.0

Taken all by itself, Water for Elephants doesn’t seem like such a bad movie. If you haven’t read Sara Gruen’s novel, you might think it’s pretty good, but it’s just about the worst kind of movie there is this side of snuff films and terrorist how-to documentaries. It takes this wonderful source material, fails to translate to the screen what made it wonderful in the first place, yet spills enough beans to make it impossible for you to turn to the book and discover its wonders for yourself. Picture someone at the premiere of Citizen Kane in 1941, standing up as the lights go down and shouting, “Rosebud is the sled!”

Gruen’s novel tells the story of Jake Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), a 93-year-old inmate—oops, “guest”—at a nursing home where (literally) the circus comes to town, raising its big top in a field across the parking lot from the home. When Jake hears one of the other guests bragging about how he carried water for elephants as a kid, he knows the man is a liar and a phony: No human being can carry enough to satisfy a thirsty elephant, you have to take them to the water.

This puts Jake in a cantankerous mood and the bad graces of the staff, but it also draws his memory back 70 years to the Great Depression, when he was a young man (now played by Robert Pattinson) just finishing his veterinary studies at Cornell. The sudden deaths of his parents, and the huge debts they left, leave Jake homeless and force him to drop out of Cornell. Soon, however, he chances into a job as animal doctor for a fleabag traveling circus.

Here we see the first of writer Richard LaGravenese’s pound-foolish changes. In the book, the circus is run by Uncle Al, an unscrupulous, Mephistophelean character, calculating and cruel. LaGravenese’s script cuts Uncle Al—or rather, combines him with the mentally unstable August (Christoph Waltz), making August the circus’s owner as well as head trainer. Jake will fall into August’s clutches while falling in love with August’s wife, the bareback rider Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

Gruen contrasted the cold, deliberate cruelty of Uncle Al with August’s hot and unpredictable variety, but the movie strips depth and texture from the story. By eliminating Uncle Al, the movie blunts—no, ignores—Gruen’s nuanced point that there are different kinds of bad guys in the world.

The movie also eliminates that bragging liar in the nursing home (another bad guy, albeit a relatively harmless one) and almost the entire framing story; the venerable Hal Holbrook’s role is trimmed to an insulting minute or so at the opening and closing. He doesn’t even get to narrate, as Old Jake did the book, a constant presence in his own past. When the movie fades to 1931, Robert Pattinson takes over on the soundtrack as well.

This may be simple star protection, sparing Pattinson as much as possible any comparison with peppery old Hal. His slouching into the Twilight franchise may have made Pattinson the heartthrob du jour for a legion of teeny-bopper necrophiliacs, but he’s an actor of world-class dullness; he makes Orlando Bloom look like George C. Scott. His hangdog blankness—and Francis Lawrence’s slack direction, like a bored traffic cop waiting to go home, amid the production design of Jack Fisk and Rodrigo Prieto’s burnished cinematography—make Water for Elephants like a donut: a lot of cake and icing surrounding a hole.

Gruen’s novel begins with a flash-forward prologue—a framing story to the framing story—telling us what will come. We know there will be a stampede in the circus menagerie, but not why, and that a man will be surreptitiously murdered in the confusion, but not what leads up to it or if the killer will escape discovery. LaGravenese could easily have honored the book by preserving that prologue, but he didn’t; instead, he covers (barely) the letter of the story while violating its spirit.

In parenthetical fairness, the casting of Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz is spot-on, as are their performances. How Water for Elephants could get those two things right while bungling so much else will just have to remain one of those mysteries.