With Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Jim Norton. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. 122 minutes.
There are certain books that tend to be invisible to those of us with Y chromosomes, becoming visible only when they are turned into movies. It was the rare man who had heard of, much less read, the “Twilight” series or “Eat Pray Love.” And probably they hadn’t heard about WATER FOR ELEPHANTS until their wives, girlfriends, mothers or other familiar females started getting excited about it. That doesn’t mean men can’t enjoy these works, simply that they’re not aware of them.
“Water For Elephants” is essentially a romantic triangle set amidst a Depression-era circus (an actual circus). Jacob (Robert Pattinson) has to drop out of Cornell Veterinary School just before graduation when his parents die in a car accident, leaving him penniless. By chance, he hops a freight train carrying a travelling circus. He manages to avoid getting thrown off by telling August (Christoph Waltz), the owner, that he is an animal doctor.
August is a vain man who can be charming but also has his dark side. His star attraction is his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) who does a horse act. One of her horses, though, is grievously injured, with Jacob declaring it must be put down. This leads to an ugly confrontation with August who ultimately comes to respect Jacob’s knowledge and willingness to act. August puts Marlena and Jacob together to work on a new act with Rosy, an elephant he has acquired from a failed circus.
In a different sort of film, Jacob and Marlena would plot to kill off the increasingly brutish August, but this is a lavish period romance, not a film noir. Jacob and Marlena find comfort in each other’s arms, not a sense of lust. Seasoned screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has adapted Sara Gruen’s novel with intelligence and some flair. We get to see the rough-and-rowdy day-to-day life of the circus performers, knowing that anything – including a greedy owner absconding with the receipts – could put them all out of work.
The three leads are solid, with Waltz getting a much better follow up to his Oscar-winning turn in “Inglourious Basterds” than the recent “Green Hornet” was. No one has yet accused Robert Pattinson of having a range, but the “Twilight” star holds his own in a part that requires him to be at turns naïve and earnest, while Witherspoon gets her best role since she played June Carter Cash in “Walk The Line.” She looks fantastic in the period wardrobe, and you’re not likely to question the age difference between her and the ten-years-younger Pattinson. Oddly, it is the eighty-six year old Hal Holbrook who is a tad too twinkly-eyed as the elderly Jacob in the story’s frame, but that sentimentality is likely what made the book a hit.
Until its cloying coda, “Water For Elephants” is an engrossing romantic melodrama in a seedy but colorful setting. You either buy it or you don’t. Rest assured there’s an audience out there already eager to buy it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.