© 2011 Ray Wong
Based on Sara Gruen's best-selling novel, Water for Elephants is an old-fashioned story set during the Great Depression. It's marketed as an epic romance, but in reality it is a coming of age story about a young man and his love for the circus.
Jacob (Hal Holbrook) wanders from the old folks' home and ends up the circus that has just given its last performance in town. Jacob goes on to tell them a story when he briefly worked for the Benzini Brothers Circus which, we're told, did not see the end of 1931. As a young man, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is once a promising veterinarian student at Cornell until his parents die in an accident, leaving Jacob penniless. Looking for a job during the Great Depression is not an easy thing, but Jacob lucks out when he gets on the Benzini Brothers' train.
The ringmaster and owner, August (Christoph Waltz), is a charismatic but brutal businessman. He almost throws Jacob, a trespasser, off the train until he learns that Jacob is a vet. He needs Jacob just as much as Jacob needs him. August's beautiful wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is also the star performer. But when Jacob, out of mercy, euthanizes the star-attraction horse, August succumbs to an uncontrollable rage as his debts continue to pile up and he's on the verge of bankruptcy without a star act.
Luckily, a miracle happens and August is able to acquire a 15-year-old elephant named Rosie. Desperate for Rosie to perform, August is cruel to the elephant and that puts a rift between him and the kind-hearted Marlena. Meanwhile, Jacob takes care of Rosie and develops a crush on Marlena. When Jacob realizes Rosie responds to Polish, August's mood changes. The circus is saved, and Jacob is welcome into the inner circle. All goes well until August begins to suspect something is going on between Jacob and Marlena.
As young Jacob, Robert Pattinson (The Eclipse) is handsome and mild-mannered enough to secure his matinee idol status. However, his character is rather passive, and Pattinson underplays the role. What comes across is a lackluster performance and a character who more often only reacts. Reese Witherspoon (How Do You Know) is miscast as Marlena. Her slight, contemporary looks are a distraction, and her performance lacks the authenticity to pull of the larger-than-life character. Furthermore, she and Pattinson lack chemistry and heat together, especially with their age difference. Their onscreen courtship is unconvincing.
Christoph Waltz (Green Hornet) is perfectly cast -- if not too well cast -- as August. I'm afraid Mr. Waltz is now officially typecast. But he simply does these over the top bad guys so well. In fact, his character is so colorful and bigger than life that we kind of wish August is the hero, and not the passive Jacob.
The large supporting cast includes Paul Schneider (Bright Star) as, amiably, the modern-day circus owner. Jim Norton (The Eclipse) is wonderfully warm as Camel, the man who gave Jacob a chance. Mark Povinelli (Broadwalk Empire) is affecting as Jacob's reluctant bunkmate. Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) steals the show as old Jacob. But who really steals the show is Tai, the beautiful elephant that plays Rosie. He's the best thing of the entire movie.
Adapted by Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You), the script has all the epic elements and sweeping historical drama, but it can't overcome the innate cliches and melodrama of the source material. The subject matter is fascinating, and in fact the screenplay shines the brightest when it focuses on the circus itself. However, when it shifts to the romance between Jacob and Marlena, the plot falters and sinks into sappy melodrama. The sole villain, August, is overwritten and cliched (Christoph Waltz is able to save the day with his stella performance). The plot is contrived (and filled with coincidences whose explanations are either coyly done or ignored). The dialogue is cheesy at times. Worst of all, the relationship between Marlena and Jacob is boring and almost an after thought.
The story comes to life when LaGravenese focuses on the hardship and absurdity of circus life, but he doesn't do enough. There's a wealth of characters and situations to explore, but he focuses on the August-Marlena-Jacob triangle instead. The climax feels particularly rushed and anticlimactic.
Francis Lawrence's (I Am Legend) direction is rather good, however. The cinematography is lush and rich. The sceneries beautiful and historically appropriate. The costumes are great, and the production is gorgeous. It is a beautiful film. But even Lawrence's direction can't save the slogging, predictable plot, which isn't all that bad if not for the bland leading man and a miscast heroine.
That's just too bad. I was expecting to see a rich, epic romantic drama. Instead, I get a beautifully shot and produced shell of a cliched melodrama. No water for this elephant.
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Hal Holbrook, Mark Povinelli
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Richard LaGravenese (based on Sara Gruen's novel)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug and alcohol use, sexuality, violence and language
Running Time: 122 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 6
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.1 out of 10