"Water for Elephants" gives off an air of self-satisfaction, and you can see why. What film wouldn't be pleased with having a No. 1 bestseller as source material, an unapologetically picturesque world for its setting and major players such as Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and a superb Christoph Waltz as its stars. What's not to like?
There is quite a bit to enjoy in a film that certainly qualifies as broad-based popular entertainment. But because the ingredients are so promising, there hangs over this serviceable project the wish that it had turned out better still. Director Francis Lawrence, who works in music videos as well as features, has an unmistakable gift for bravura spectacle, but the absence of convincing romantic chemistry means that the emotional connection that should be this film's birthright is not really there.
That spectacle comes courtesy of the 1931 Benzini Bros. circus setting of Sara Gruen's epic romance about a man, a woman and a 9,000-pound elephant. The Benzini troupe bills itself grandly, but the reality, as one of Gruen's characters says, is that "it's probably not even the fiftieth most spectacular show on earth."
No matter. In the hands of veteran production designer Jack Fisk and his team, costume designer Jacqueline West and master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, that tarnished, bawdy milieu, including the raising of a massive circus tent that could seat 800, is brought to impressive and detailed life. The romance of the carnival is strong in this film, and it's not too much to say that it's the element viewers will come away remembering most.
If things had gone as planned, young Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) would never even have heard of Benzini Bros. But his hopes of becoming a veterinarian with a Cornell degree are dashed, and the Depression-era freight train he hops in despair turns out to house the circus in all its ragtag glory.
While Gruen's book alternates chapters of young Jacob at the circus with a 93-year-old Jacob languishing in a contemporary nursing home, Richard LaGravenese's screenplay cuts the elderly Jacob down to a bare minimum framing device. Which, given Hal Holbrook's overeagerness with the role, is probably a good idea.
LaGravenese's smart script, unable by the nature of the medium to duplicate some of the book's narrative sleights of hand, in general tightens the novel's action and puts a bit of a bright PG-13 sheen on some of the raunchier aspects of the original narrative.
Jacob still gets his introduction to circus life from the veteran Camel (Jim Norton), a kindly gentleman who shows him the ins and outs of this self-contained universe with its own language, its own rules and its surprisingly rigid social hierarchy. Jacob starts out shoveling manure, but his gift for animals is soon recognized and that becomes his area of expertise.
No one is particularly eager to make Jacob feel at home, but he can't help but be drawn to the beautiful platinum blond Marlena (Witherspoon), whose liberty horse act is the Benzini show's star attraction. She's grateful to have the benefit of Jacob's veterinary knowledge, but she is also very much married to August (Waltz), the show's magnetic owner and animal trainer.
The gifted Witherspoon was attracted to this role early in the process. This despite the considerable time she has to spend in a performer's leotard, which goes against what she's called "a conscious effort all of my career to not end up in a bathing suit in a movie." What the actress likely saw was the opportunity to bring an uncharacteristic but essential hardness to the role of a survivor who would have been toughened by years spent being married to the dangerous, mercurial August.
If the circus is a hierarchical pyramid, August is at the very top. It's a part tailor-made for the accomplished Waltz, an Oscar winner for "Inglourious Basterds," and he eats it alive.
Ruthless, autocratic, alternating between unapologetic sadism and unexpected concern, August is easily the film's most complicated and interesting personality. With his vigorous confidence and menacing voice, this character holds the circus together the way the actor unifies and energizes the film.
The turning point in "Water for Elephants" is August's acquisition of Rosie, an enormous beast with a reputation for being "dumb as a bag of hammers." When Rosie brings out August's savage side (the film's press materials emphasize that in reality, Tai, the elephant performer in question, was never touched), it proves an opportunity for Marlena and Jacob to spend quality time together.
Though fans of the "Twilight" series are not going to be pleased to hear this, the weak link in this melodramatic chain is Pattinson's performance as Jacob. Though his removed affect made him ideal as one of the undead, that quality makes him seem sullen, petulant, even pouty here. In a season that's seen strong chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in "The Adjustment Bureau" as well as Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in "Source Code," the absence of that quality here is especially noticeable.
"Water for Elephants" offers a lot to look at, just not enough to feel.