Water for Elephants ✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
Ladies and gentlemen, please now turn your attention to the center ring, where a romance between a handsome young stowaway and our show’s star attraction, Marlena, is about to play out. Forgive the gooey confection sticking to your shoes ‒ it’s sawdust and syrup, a common nuisance when picking your way through chick-flick territory.
If “Water for Elephants,” from the popular Sara Gruen novel, sometimes feels like a big-top “Titanic,” there’s good reason: The story is told in long-winded flashback; it boasts a pair of star-crossed lovers hounded by a jealous older man; and, from the opening moments, it foretells of a catastrophe ‒ “the most famous circus disaster in history,” no less.
Standing in for those treacherous icebergs? A few unhappy roustabouts, a couple of toothless lions, and a temperamental pachyderm named Rosie.
Hunk du jour Robert Pattinson (the “Twilight” series) is Gruen’s malleable hero, Jacob Jankowski, an aspiring veterinarian whose immigrant roots will play a pivotal, if unlikely, role in the outcome. The setting is Depression New York and environs, a time of hoboes, bad grain alcohol and speakeasies. While taking his final exam at Cornell, Jacob receives bad news: his parents have been killed in an accident and, thanks to those college loans, have left their only son destitute. What’s a boy to do during such harsh times? Ride the rails, of course.
As luck ‒ and creaky storytelling ‒ would have it, the first train Jacob hops belongs to the Benzini Bros. Circus, a cash-strapped stepchild of Ringling Bros. Running the operation (into the ground, from the looks of things) is August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), who doubles as ring master and sadist. To meet payroll he throws his workers, not to the lions, but from the speeding train. Instead of tossing the Ivy Leaguer, he employs him as circus vet. A thankless job, to be sure, as the boss likes to starve and beat his animals.
August treats his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) marginally better, because her equestrian routine fills seats. No one has to convince Jacob. When he isn’t protecting the show’s newly acquired elephant, he’s making cow eyes at Marlena, who reciprocates with mixed signals. All of which enrages the boss ‒ and leads to some rather nasty encounters.
If you’ve read ‒ or, for that matter, thumbed ‒ the book, all of this will be very predictable. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, who specializes in high-grade schmaltz (he adapted “The Bridges of Madison County”), has collapsed the narrative and combined characters to decent effect. Director Francis Lawrence, who apprenticed on CG adventures (“Constantine,” “I Am Legend”), begins promisingly with a textbook-perfect visual essay that might be titled “The Circus Comes to Town.” This montage, backed by James Newton Howard score, is robust and colorful and accomplishes a lot in the least amount of time.
But then things bog down as the young lovers trade goo-goo eyes and August the cartoon sadomasochistic glowers from the shadows. That telegraphed circus disaster can’t be far off.
Of the three principals, Pattinson acquits himself best. He’s likable and understated, the quintessence of Barnum’s prize chump. Witherspoon, who I usually like, is miscast, both as incipient femme fatale and star bareback rider. Little wonder Benzini is in trouble ‒ Marlena’s specialty act, which makes liberal use of stunt double, is, in a word, lame-o. Waltz, who scored an Oscar for his laughing Nazi in “Inglourious Basterds,” seems to be channeling Klaus Kinski at his most bug-eyed this time around. In the tradition of some of the screen’s least memorable loonies, he’s charming one moment and threatening the next. But maybe that’s the point: Someone this unstable would run the Titanic aground.
For the record, “Water for Elephants” derives its title from the first, initially nonexistent job offered Jacob. It’s meant metaphorically, of course. And if you don’t get the point, August’s numerous speeches about the great unwashed craving illusion during hard economic times may help.
Benzini Bros., you see, is more ethereal than anything found under DeMille’s big top. It is ‒ drum roll, please ‒ the Circus of Life, a microcosm of man at his most foolish. Lawrence and company would have done well to study Max Ophul’s “Lola Montés” to nail this absurdist element. Peter Ustinov’s Ringmaster traded in dry sarcasm, August’s emcee settles for midway bombast.
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. ✮✮ With Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz. Directed by Francis Lawrence; scripted by Richard LaGravenese from the Sara Gruen novel. 122 mins. Rated: PG-13 (for violence, adult content)