An orphaned college student runs away and joins the circus in Depression Era America in Water for Elephants, a movie that has nothing to do with vampires or the town of Bedford but I’ll probably make snide references herein about both.
Coincidentally-named Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is a veterinary student at Cornell University, just a few tests away from getting his degree and graduating to a nice career, even in these hard times, when his parents are killed in a car accident. Distraught, he leaves school and decides to ride the rails looking for work. But the train he jumps on turns out to be a circus train and instead of being arrested for vagrancy, he’s given work shoveling poo and becomes enchanted with the magic of the circus, particularly the magic of the cute and sparkly Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the horse trainer whose act is the star attraction. When Jacob is able to identify what is wrong with one of her horses, circus owner and Marlena’s husband August (Christoph Waltz) decides to keep Jacob on as the vet. Even after he angers August by shooting the sick horse rather than working it to death, Jacob still finds himself a favorite of Mr. and Mrs. Circus Owner, which starts to get awkward as Jacob’s attraction to Marlena grows.
The circus may be all exotic delights to the rubes who turn out to see acrobats and ferocious lions, but it has a dark side. For one, August doesn’t treat anyone or anything connected to the circus particularly well. He might have a good sense of showmanship, but he’s also a jerk — to Marlena, the other circus employees and the animals. Examples: he feeds the animal rancid meat and will toss employees off a speeding train if they displease him or if he finds himself short at payroll time. And his jerkiness is enhanced by the general tightness of his finances. He fears the circus will go under and tries to generate interest and ticket sales by buying an elephant for Marlena to build an act around. Though really only trained to deal with farm animals and the like, Jacob is tasked with keeping middle-aged Rosie the elephant alive and getting her to perform. While August attempts to accomplish this task by jabbing her with a sharp prod, Jacob eventually discovers that she can perform on command when spoken to in Polish, which, luckily, was his parents’ native language. Jacob and Marlena bond over the charm of the pachyderm, but August can only see dollars when he looks at Rosie and is impatient for his investment in her to pay off.
Because This Is the Great Depression, as we are told over and over again in the most flatly overt manner. Everything about Water for Elephants feels like a thinly disguised vehicle for teaching a lesson — about the value of hard work, or the evils of beating animals and/or your wife, or how tough things are During This Great Depression We Are Currently Experiencing. I hope the book (which I haven’t read) does contain some good sex scenes because otherwise it might be hard for students assigned to read it to stay awake long enough to learn its valuable lessons. I suspect in cramming the story into two hours, the movie had to shave off a lot of texture and atmospherics about the times, reducing it to the kind of exposition that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story made such excellent fun of. (“It’s the sixties,” characters said there. “It’s the Depression,” characters say here. “It’s only 40 minutes into the movie, two minutes later than the last time you looked,” my cell phone informs me.) For those who are inclined to read the book of a movie they enjoy, Water For Elephants the movie doesn’t make a great ad for the book. The movie suggests a book that feels like something you’d have to read rather than something you’d enjoy reading.
Not helping the half-baked feel of the movie are the central three performances. Christoph Waltz is all kinds of excellent, particularly when it comes to exuding menace. But his performance here is bigger than the character. There seem to be nuances to August’s character that are harder to catch under the big villainy that Waltz brings to the role. Or maybe there aren’t, and August is a just one-note thug and that’s just as uninteresting.
On the other hand, at least he brings something — Witherspoon looks nice in her costumes and seems to have left it at that. And then there’s Pattinson, who is going to have a devil of a time breaking free from his glittery vampire cage. I suggest he veer wildly off course and do broad comedy or something because this lovesick-puppy shtick is even less convincing when it doesn’t come with white pancake makeup and glowy eyes.
For a movie about the huckster magic and raw showmanship of the early 20th-century circus, Water for Elephants is surprising only for its lack of spark and excitement. C
Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. Directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Richard LaGravenese (from the novel by Sara Gruen), Water for Elephants is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed by Fox 2000.