Water for Elephants Review: Under the Big Top with Reese and RPattz

The movie is a flashback to Hollywood's midcentury, when sentimental best-sellers routinely became films of high purpose

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David James / Twentieth Century Fox / AP

Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in a scene from Water for Elephants

Is there life beyond the living dead? Can Robert Pattinson, the 24-year-old Englishman who achieved a teen-talisman celebrity playing the dreamboat vampire Edward, find longevity in a post-Twilight Saga acting career?

For a few moments in Water for Elephants, the answer seems yes. As Jacob Jankowski, a part that requires him mainly to be shy and watchful, RPattz radiates a slow magnetism that locks the viewer’s eyes on him. His easy smile — not the smirk he often plasters on Edward, or the louche sneer familiar from TV interviews — invites us inside his star quality. And even without fangs, he’s got great teeth. Riffling Hollywood history for other icons who can suggest preternatural handsomeness in galoot roles, we might think dreamily of Gary Cooper, Montgomery Clift…until the vapors pass, we return to 2011 and realize that, however strong Pattinson’s anachronistic attractiveness, they don’t make movies like Cooper’s Ball of Fire or Clift’s A Place in the Sun any more.

But they try — as in this pachydermally ponderous film version of Sara Gruen’s popular novel. A circus memoir of the 1930s related decades later by the elderly Jacob (Hal Holbrook), Elephants is itself a flashback to Hollywood’s midcentury, when sentimental best-sellers routinely became films of high purpose whose every noble or venal emotion is cued by ostentatious program music. (James Newton Howard wrote Elephants‘ sumptuous score.) The movie mood then was serious and swoony, essentially feminine; now it’s ironic — by which we almost always mean sarcastic — and very dude. I’d be pleased to see a vibrantly romantic picture defy the Zeitgeist and restore one of Hollywood’s central genres. This just isn’t the movie to do it.

In 1931, early in the Great Depression, young Jacob, the son of loving Polish immigrants, is a student at Cornell Veterinary College (Keith Olbermann went there). When his parents die in a car crash, Jacob quits school and hitches a ride on a train carrying the Banzini Bros. Circus, billed as “the most spectacular show on Earth.” Because of his training with animals, Jacob is hired by August (Christoph Waltz), the circus’ boss and ringmaster, who’s married to his star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). From a bankrupt rival, August buys a bull elephant named Rosie, for whom Jacob proves to be the perfect trainer: he speaks Polish, she understands it. Jacob’s gentle hand with Rosie and Marlena rouses the envious brute in August. The Banzini tent may collapse on all of them.

Today a once-thriving industry is represented only by Cirque de Soleil and the limping vestige of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey. But back when dozens of traveling shows crawled across America, circus movies used to be big. Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus and Tod Browning’s Freaks hailed from the period of Water for Elephants‘ main story. The ’50s saw a revival of circus films, with Cecil B. De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Ingmar Bergman’s The Naked Night (also known as Sawdust and Tinsel) and Federico Fellini’s La Strada. All these, and Disney’s Dumbo too, mined the melodrama inherent in a milieu of temperamental artists, nature’s oddities, wild animals and men who use whips to impose discipline.

To these stock elements, Water for Elephants adds little. The script is by Richard LaGravenese, whose earlier adaptations of beloved books — The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You and, for that matter, Beloved — proved that some stories lose their intimate subtlety when transferred from page to screen. Any grand, poignant or even plausible elements in Gruen’s novel get reduced to a standard tale of domestic and institutional sadism. (Why does August so viciously abuse the elephant he’s just bought to be his star attraction? Because, prod-prod, that’s how he treats females.) The role seems to exist only to let Waltz, an Oscar winner as the Nazi sleuth in Inglourious Basterds, play another purring psycho.

After a career in videos, the Vienna-born Francis Lawrence made a goofy-good movie, Constantine, and the more stolid but fitfully vivid I Am Legend. Here he concentrates on period nuance — fine for an art director, not so good for a director — while letting the characters and actors evaporate. A love story has a major flaw if it doesn’t convey that the two main characters are really in love. Jacob and Marlena are certainly simpatico in their respect for animals and their restlessness under August’s boot, but they’re both so well-behaved and repressed that their ardor lacks sparks, or even smoldering glances. Though her character echoes Dietrich’s name and is outfitted in Jean Harlow’s blond mane and white gowns, Witherspoon offers no hint of the sultry or sensual; she’s the nice soccer mom somebody stuck on top of an elephant. I watched her and thought of Amy Poehler.

The proceedings get so slow and saccharine that viewers will relishes the film’s moments of redeeming idiocy. In one of them, Marlena whispers to Jacob, “Bring Rosie to my tent and don’t tell anyone” — as if the roustabouts wouldn’t notice a 12-ft.-tall, 10,000-lb. creature striding down the midway. Granted, they’d also take a look at his handler, the divoon Robert Pattinson; but Rosie has a pretty strong odor too, and that’s what will stick to you after seeing Water for Elephants.