By Bill Wine, KYW Newsradio
Here’s a circus movie with a familiar ring to it. Three, come to think of it.
Set early in the Great Depression and late in Prohibition, Water for Elephants is an old-school, circus-themed romantic drama that, given our recent and current financial woes, is as timely as it is nostalgic.
Reese Witherspoon stars as horseback-riding Marlena Rosenbluth, the equestrian headliner for the Benzini Brothers Traveling Circus, a lesser rival of the Ringling Brothers’ Greatest Show on Earth. She’s married to August, the autocratic circus owner and outgoing emcee played by Christoph Waltz, who displays the kind of cruelty to the performing animals that makes his employees wonder just how cruel he might be to the humans in his life.
Robert Pattinson is Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary school student at Cornell University about to get his degree and follow his father into the profession. But when his parents are killed in an automobile accident, he abandons his studies and runs away, hitching a ride on a random boxcar passing by.
That train, it turns out, is carrying the Benzini Brothers circus, which Jacob ends up joining and, given his training as a vet, is put in charge of the menagerie, which includes Rosie, the elephant that August snares as the Benzini Brothers’ new main attraction after the horse that his wife has been riding in the center ring has to be put down.
In the bookends that open and close the film, Hal Holbrook plays the older Jacob, a nonagenarian who relates the events of the past as an extended flashback.
And the narrative line that he details mostly involves Jacob’s feelings for Marlena, her feelings for him, and August’s suspicions that the two of them are acting on those feelings.
Director Francis Lawrence ( I Am Legend, Constantine, numerous music videos) explores the underground world of circus performers and really captures the allure of the circus, especially in juxtaposition with the film’s downbeat, dark-clouded opening.
The casting of the triumvirate of major characters is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Waltz shows us why he won that Oscar for Inglourious Basterds. He plays the villain of the piece commandingly but with skillful nuance, showing us the character’s sadistic tendencies, but also his unmistakable charm. And Witherspoon, identified so closely with comedy, reminds us of her Oscar win for Walk the Line by giving us a credible leading lady and apex of the romantic triangle torn between desire and fear/obligation.
But Pattinson is the elephant in the room. As the protagonist, he doesn’t embarrass himself. Not exactly. But he doesn’t exhibit enough in the way of presence or charisma to balance out the other two major characters. He seems vacant. If you think about his scenes with Waltz, with whom he can barely share the screen, or if you compare his work to that of Hal Holbrook, playing the same character at a different age, you immediately notice the difference between acting (his) and Acting (theirs).
The nostalgic, emotional screenplay by accomplished veteran Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, The Fisher King), based on the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen, fails to deliver a circus-disaster climax that is as persuasive or dramatic as the events leading up to it. But that has as much to do with the quality of the buildup as it does with the limitations of the denouement.
This is an old-fashioned motion picture in the sense that you could believe it was made in any of many earlier eras. In the crowded genre of romantic drama, it registers as slightly above run-of-the-mill. But in the underpopulated genre of circus drama, it is highly accomplished; for example, when compared to the 1952 winner of the Best Picture Oscar, The Greatest Show on Earth, it leaves its three-ring predecessor in the dust.
So we’ll duck into the Big Top to watch 3 stars out of 4. Despite doing a better job of revisiting a fondly remembered entertainment attraction than establishing its central romance, Water for Elephants is an absorbing and affecting period piece.