Water For Elephants has a mouth-watering cast: Twilight's vampy, up-and-comer Robert Pattinson, on hiatus from that Stephanie Meyer monsters-and-melancholia phenomenon, has taken another shot at serious drama since last year's misfire Remember Me was remembered by pretty much nobody. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) is the other strike-when-the-irons-hot casting choice -- as he's still polishing the Oscar he received for Quentin Tarantino's WWII yarn. Rounding out the trio is another award winner: the charming Reese Witherspoon. So how could this trifecta of fertile talent be upstaged so imperiously by an African elephant named Rosy? That's all I'd really like to know.
It's not surprising that a gargantuan, grandstanding Dumbo would be the main attraction at the 1931 traveling circus that Pattinson's Jacob Jankowski runs away to. Depression era folks may not have been able to buy food, but they could spare a cent to see a beast of such exotic grandeur. The circus, like the cinema, was escapist diversion to the suffering poor. As Jacob says, "They created heaven in less than a day, took it down over night, and moved on." A former veterinary student at Cornell, Jacob comes on to care for the circus' animalia. But he doesn't expect to fall in love with star performer, Marlena (Witherspoon).
Waltz plays Marlena's ringmaster husband, Auguste, a ruthless, domineering sadist who controls his wife like he does his circus -- with fear and abuse. (He delights in whipping animals and throwing people off moving trains). With the villain in place and the love triangle a juicy one, this handsomely produced, old-fashioned, big-top-saga should be bursting with compelling drama. Yet somehow it isn't. The narrative is framed by a wandering geriatrich (Hal Holbrook) telling the story to a modern day circus director forecasting a big, third-act calamity we can surely look forward to. And still, there is no reason to care.
Why? Because the film fails to invest our emotions in any character other than Rosy the elephant. We're as horrified when Auguste whips her mercilessly as we are delighted when she mischeviously removes her shackles for a crisp sip of lemonade. Shouldn't we respond with the same passion when Jacob and Marlena (the human characters) finally make their getaway? We should but we don't.
Adapted from a book by Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants spends its mid-section cooling its heels instead fanning the romantic flames. The couple's relationship ends up stagnant and ambiguous as we wait for it to begin. When it finally does it's too late. Pattinson is a handsome guy, but he's not a particularly interesting actor. He's most intriguing to watch when bruised, broken and sopping wet. But besides the makeup team's expert cuts and scrapes, Pattinson is bloodless. Witherspoon, toothy and Marylin curled, lacks the theatricality to convince as the circus's starring act. Even more, her performance felt decidedly modern. She never evokes the time or place -- like if How Do You Know's Lisa was mistakenly dropped off at a carnival circa 1930. And because director Francis Lawrence chooses to highlight his actors with tight frames and close-ups, every mistake is coldly accentuated.
Water For Elephants isn't the first instance of an animal out-performing its human costars, but it's one of the most depressing. This literary adaptation has all the right pieces (including world class performers) but can't shape them into a product of true form or genuine emotion. Luckily we have Rosy the elephant to provide enough grace and empathetic stimulation to recall Bresson's donkey Balthazar.