(by Dustin Putman
The year is 1931, and Cornell student Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) has just one final exam to take before earning his degree in veterinary science when word comes that his parents have been killed in a car accident. He promptly abandons school—need it be mentioned again that only a single test separates him from his diploma?—and, with nowhere to go, promptly hops a passing train. It is this fateful decision that introduces him to the traveling Benzini Bros. Circus, and a new life for himself is born. Based on the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen, "Water for Elephants" never actually establishes that Jacob has a passion for the circus milieu—the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese (2007's "P.S. I Love You") poorly develops him beyond surface levels, failing to locate his soul—suggesting, instead, that he makes a career out of caring for the performing animals because he's emotionally lost and has few other options. The film always seems to be on the cusp of locating some bigger truth about one's life and destiny—and maybe the book did—but this cinematic treatment loses its way by focusing almost solely on a sudsy, perfunctory love triangle. If there is any weighty resonance rifled by the end, it is wholly due to Hal Holbrook (2007's "Into the Wild"), captivatingly poignant as the elderly Jacob in an otherwise contrived, murkily conceived present-day wraparound story. Article continues below
So, yes, Jacob is welcomed into the fold as the animals' resident doctor by circus owner and ringleader August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). He is instantly smitten by August's much younger wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who rides on the backs of, first, a white horse who ultimately has to be put down, and later 53-year-old elephant Rosie. August, whose outward charm is undone by a hot temper and a ruthless drive to compete with popular rival Ringling Bros., will do whatever it takes to ensure that the show goes on, even if it means physically abusing Rosie so that she'll do what he wants her to. When Jacob and Marlena fall helplessly in love, they initially try to keep it secret—then grapple with the possibility of running away together. It's not that easy, though. It never is. August, who sees what it is going on behind his back, isn't about to let his wife get away.
The core tale that "Water for Elephants" weaves is positioned as a story being told to a curious circus manager (Paul Schneider) by the ninetysomething-year-old Jacob, who has left his nursing home and mysteriously appeared before the big top late one night. His narration segues quickly into that of the younger Jacob, which leads one to question why the 1930s-era version of him is speaking words he won't be saying for another seventy years. This small but still valid creative misjudgment is peripheral in comparison to the picture's much larger problems. There is nothing inherently wrong with a plot dealing in romantic entanglements, even ones as formulaic as this, as long as there are substantive characters involved and enough chemistry between them to care. Scribe Richard LaGravenese botches the former necessity by divulging very little about Jacob's, Marlena's and August's pasts, while the actors have trouble fulfilling the latter requirement; they are all pretty set types at the beck and call of the script, unable to breathe three-dimensionality into their roles.
Going down a predictable path and streamlined to the point where the circus environment is frequently overlooked and the supporting players blend in with the drapes, the picture is all about the thorny interplay between Jacob, Marlena and August, all the time. In fact, it's not unlike 1997's "Titanic," with Jack and Rose embarking on a forbidden love while Rose's snide fiancé Cal sets out to stop them no matter the cost. It worked there because the actors and relationships came alive and there was a certain building momentum as they moved ever closer to colliding with a tragic moment in history. In "Water for Elephants," the would-be epic scope is harshly minimalized, the obligatory love scene—again, with shades of "Titanic" undeniable—is both tame and uninvolving, and the climactic action set-piece where the show going awry coincides with everything between the trio of principles coming to a head feels rushed and negligible of its suggestive consequences for the imperiled circus audience. Director Francis Lawrence, who displayed such a vivid since of time and place in 2007's post-apocalyptic "I Am Legend," strips this story of all that. Traveling around by train and forever seeming to set their tent up in the same nondescript field—was this a way of cutting costs on the production?—the Benzini Bros. Circus might be across the river from NYC or right outside Omaha for all the viewer knows. Lawrence's disregard for establishing shots or even mentions in the dialogue to location or any sort of historical backdrop besides the year are mystifying and frustrating.
Robert Pattinson (2010's "Remember Me") isn't some talentless pretty-boy like Alex Pettyfer; he has what it takes to play a variety of parts and personalities, and should go on to have a nice career even after the "Twilight" saga is over. With that said, Pattinson's abilities are stifled with a character who, as written, never comes into his own. He is supposed to be destroyed by the deaths of his parents—that is, after all, what the entire premise hinges upon—yet he seems to forget them within seconds and never mentions them again, not even in getting-to-know-each-other chit-chat with Marlena. Mostly, Jacob sits back and allows the story to happen to him. Save for his obvious love for animals, the viewer has trouble connecting to him. As Marlena, Reese Witherspoon (2010's "How Do You Know") goes in and out of a strange, indecipherable accent; had it ever gone into her family roots, perhaps this mystery would have been solved. Sketchy speech patterns notwithstanding, Witherspoon is perfectly adequate in the role and could have done more with it had Marlena been given more complexity. Christoph Waltz (2009's "Inglourious Basterds") gives the best performance as August, shifting with menacing effortlessness between ingratiating and savage. Hopefully Waltz will not fall into a continuing pattern of being typecast, but until then he is deliciously good at portraying the heavy.
Had "Water for Elephants" been doing its job, the ending could have—and should have—packed a dramatic wallop in its look at transcendent love, memories, and the cruel passage of time. Instead, the only fleeting wistfulness is brought about by Hal Holbrook's lovely turn, not because Jacob and Marlena have grown into real people whom we care about as a couple. Early on, Jacob narrates that the "Benzini Bros. outdid God himself; they built heaven in one day." Returning to the here and now, the old Jacob still can't help but see the circus as his home. It's one thing to include these lines in the narrative, but it's quite another to really show and convey just what the circus grew to mean for him, and to the attending public, and why. Sadly, "Water for Elephants" doesn't appear particularly interested in the answers.