I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t mean to take the title so much to heart, but this would-be romantic drama is as lumbering as an elephant. Somehow Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon have lost their usual sparkle, and even a circus in the background can’t save us from the tedium that is Water for Elephants.
Based on Sara Gruen’s mega-bestseller, the film is set in 1931, when Jacob Jankowsky (Pattinson) is about to take his final exam and graduate from veterinary school. When his parents are killed in a car accident, he understandably leaves the exam. Not so understandably, instead of going back to take it again, he hops a train and finds himself with the flea-bitten Branzini Brothers traveling circus.
Running off to join the circus is one of the enduring Depression-era myths, but for all its sparkly lights and wild animals, the movie fails to catch a glimmer of that raggedy fantasy.
The star act, bareback rider Marlena (Witherspoon) has a horse that needs a doctor and also has an abusive husband, August (Christoph Waltz) who happens to be the circus’s owner and ringmaster.
Jacob falls for Marlena at first glance, and it takes a very long time for the inevitable romance to kick in. Instead of a slow burn, though, we’re likely to feel impatience because there is no spark between these actors.
I’ve been waiting for Pattinson to have a non-Twilight script that will let us see whether he can really act. His indies, like Remember Me and Little Ashes, have scripts so awful you have to give him a pass. I’m still waiting; here’s he’s good-looking and stiff, as always.
We know Witherspoon can act and be charming, but she’s oddly stiff here too. With Jean Harlow platinum hair, Marlena always looks glam, which is simply another of the film’s mysteries. How does she afford her great wardrobe of satiny 30’s gowns when the circus is about to go bankrupt?
A more charming film would allow us to gloss over these nonsensical turns, but here we only get more questions with the arrival of Rosie, the elephant that Jacob trains and Marlena rides and that might just save the circus. We have plenty of time to wonder when we’re seeing Witherspoon on an elephant and when it’s her double, and whether that’s an animatronic elephant’s trunk poking into the frame for Pattinson to nuzzle.
And Waltz was great in Inglourious Basterds, but August is a one-note, over-the-top villain.
Water for Elephants is directed with a leaden hand by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) from a plodding screenplay by Richard LaGravanese (The Fisher King). James Newton Howard’s music is used so clumsily it is actively annoying: twinkly sounds cue us at the start that we’re meant to find the circus magical, ominous tones try and fail to build suspense about possible violence. Of course that violence arrives, but there’s something hopelessly wrong with a movie in which a circus-full of animals set loose from their cages doesn’t create a bit of drama.