Set in a Depression-era circus and featuring some decent performances, Water for Elephants is good enough to recommend—but nothing to get super-hyped about.
If you like elephants, and you like Reese Witherspoon movies, have at it. If you'd rather be golfing than watching a Reese Witherspoon movie, book your tee time now.
The film moves along at a pleasant-enough pace and features a central Robert Pattinson performance that is endearing, if not all that amazing, and a Reese Witherspoon performance that, while not remarkable, is better than anything she has done in years. The movie is helped by a villainous performance from Christoph Waltz, now Hollywood's go-to guy when a good scumbag is needed.
If this doesn't sound like high praise ... well, it's not meant to be. This story of a forbidden love affair under a circus tent is the very definition of passable entertainment. I was slightly moved by it, and I sort of liked it a little bit. That's all.
In a role that isn't much of a departure from Edward Cullen, Pattinson plays Jacob, a veterinary student who loses his parents to a car crash. When the bank takes the family home, he jumps on a train and winds up doing hard labor for a ragtag circus run by August (Waltz), who is slightly crazy. The star attraction is a horse ridden by August's wife, Marlena (Witherspoon).
Pattinson looking forlornly at the married Marlena reminded me of his puppy-dog yearning for Bella in the Twilight movies. He has the lovesick routine down just fine—but perhaps he should pick a project that has him playing with toy trains or trying to win a regional soccer championship next time. He needs to cheer up and do something different on the big screen.
As for his chemistry with Witherspoon, it's nearly nonexistent. They are not convincing as a couple, and their interactions are rather flat, with most of the lubby-dubby tension coming from the Pattinson side. Witherspoon is seemingly traipsing through the role with little effort. Still, this is better than the confused performance she threw out there for last year's awful How Do You Know.
Waltz, who is in danger of becoming typecast, brings his all to the role of August. His character seems to have been underwritten a tad in Richard LaGravenese's script. At times, it looks as if Waltz is trying to make August somewhat sympathetic, but it's not enough to make August a fleshed-out, conflicted character. His nice moments are more of a distraction than an indication that August might have real depth.
The true star of the movie is an ancient elephant (named Rosie in the film) which is nothing short of beautiful. I love that elephant look when the mouth is open, and it seems as though the elephant is laughing at the silly humans around it. This could have been two hours of Rosie doing tricks and drinking people's booze, and I would have been equally satisfied.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has made a visually impressive film, capturing the splendor of the circus while not avoiding the fact that the operation is a bit rundown and starved for cash. The movie is framed Titanic-style, with an old Jacob (played by Hal Holbrook) telling his story to a modern-day circus operator (Paul Schneider). Old pro Holbrook gives the movie some of the emotional punch it needs.
Water for Elephants reminded me of the circus-viewing experiences I had when I was a kid. The animals were kind of cool; the people were a little boring; and the show went on a bit too long. Still, there was always something at the circus worth seeing. I was sort of glad I watched the film, despite its shortcomings.