Attention college leaders: If you learn that the parents of one of your students have been killed in an automobile accident and the kid is taking his final exam, show some common sense – wait until he has turned in his test before breaking the news. I mean, come on!
Based on Sara Gruen's 2006 best-selling novel, Water for Elephants is a melodrama set in 1931, focusing on a romantic triangle in the making involving the colorful, sadistic head of a traveling circus, his glamorous wife, and a former Cornell veterinary student wandering the country after losing his parents (and the hour or so necessary to finish earning his degree, thank you very much Professor Dumb-Ass).
Director Francis Lawrence offers a Hollywood look at life on a train for the performers and crew of a one-ring circus scraping its way from town to town. He creates a compelling atmosphere. Oh sure, the grittiness is glossy – lots of perfect teeth and too many picturesque images of smoke billowing from the train at night that are clearly computer-generated. But what the heck – when a movie is working, that sort of thing doesn't matter.
Water for Elephants begins with an old man lingering after a circus closes for the day. He ends up sitting down with the circus owner and sharing the tale of his days with the circus during the Great Depression. It's a fine opening scene, with the legendary Hal Holbrook (Mark Twain Tonight, Wild in the Streets) playing the old man and Paul Schneider (Bright Star, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), one of my favorite actors, playing the circus owner.
Alas, Holbrook and Schneider are just part of the film's framing device. When the elderly gent starts reminiscing he turns into – holy smokes! - young Robert Pattinson, on leave from the Twilight series but still looking awfully pale. Pattinson plays Jacob, who ends up serving as vet for the Benzini Brothers Circus, working for ringleader, owner and nut case August (Christoph Waltz, the scene-stealing Nazi from Inglourious Basterds). August's platinum-blond wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is the star performer with the circus' popular animal act, which puts her and Jacob together. Fiction being fiction, you know what that means.
The thing is this: the triangle doesn't work and the triangle is the core of the movie. August is a psychopath – he kills people that anger him and everyone on the circus train, including Marlena, knows this – yet Marlena insists on doing her flirting with Jacob right in front of her husband. What's up with that? Did the decision-makers at Cornell contact her, inform her they hadn't spoiled Jacob's life enough and ask her to finish the job?
Which brings us up to Pattinson as Jacob. Bashing the pallid Mr. Pattinson is very popular among reviewers right now. I've never considered myself a joiner, but I've got to tell you, he really doesn't do much here except look pretty and pained. He's too wispy to be a convincing leading man in this setting. There's no spark between him and Witherspoon, who doesn't generate much heat either, by the way.
When Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown came out in 2005, I argued that it would have been a much better (or at least less embarrassing) film had leading man Orlando Bloom and supporting player Paul Schneider simply traded roles. I'll say the same thing here, Schneider has as much charisma as Pattinson, coupled with a regular-Joe earthiness the Jacob character sorely lacks. With the excesses of August and the apparent self-destructive tendencies of Marlena, Water for Elephants needs someone of substance to ground the romantic triangle. But we don't get that, leaving us with a character dynamic that just doesn't hold water.