It’s been a long time since Hollywood has made a circus movie, but if “Water for Elephants” is any indication, it hasn’t been long enough. Though handsomely mounted, Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel is about as silly a big-top melodrama as one could imagine.
It clearly borrows a good deal from James Cameron’s “Titanic,” which, with its effusive romanticism and risible dialogue, was itself a throwback to an earlier era. Like that swooning epic, it’s presented as a flashback to a distant disaster—in this case one on land, in 1931 Pennsylvania to be exact, when the “big cats” of the Benzini Brothers circus somehow got loose at a performance in Altoona and caused a riot and many fatalities. The narrator is an elderly man named Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), who escaped from his nursing home to see the circus traveling through town but arrived too late and wound up telling his tale about how the mysterious catastrophe of long ago occurred to the contemporary outfit’s manager (Paul Schneider).
It seems that young Jake (Robert Pattinson) was about to take his final veterinarian’s exam at Cornell when informed that his loving, hardworking immigrant parents had been killed in a car crash. Left alone and penniless in the throes of the Great Depression, Jake set off for Albany to look for work but instead wound up on the circus train, where Camel (Jim Norton), a kindly old hand, intervened to get him a job. Finally the outfit’s hard-driving, volatile owner August (Christoph Waltz) hired the kid as the company vet.
But the scent of trouble quickly appeared when Jake put down the show horse ridden by the beautiful Marlene (Reese Witherspoon), a platinum blonde with big curls in her hair who happens to be the possessive August’s wife. Goo-goo eyes are exchanged between Marlene and Jake even before the stench of manure (from the animal cages, though it could also be from the movie) hits the air.
There’s no suspense about where this is going—the wrath of August against his cheating wife and disloyal employee—but how it gets there is at least imaginative. The two create the ultimate bond while working together on a new act involving the troupe’s latest—and perhaps life-saving—attraction, an elephant named Rosie. It would be unfair to disclose how Jake, who’s never worked with a pachyderm before, gets the beast to do all sorts of tricks; suffice it to say that the plot turn is one of the most ludicrous you’re likely to witness on screen this year (and that includes everything in superhero yarns). But it does lead to the big finale in which the cause of the 1931 debacle is revealed (in a sequence that’s sloppily choreographed and muddily edited, unfortunately). If you’re not laughing by the final scenes, your funnybone must have been surgically removed.
It’s hard to imagine that this overwrought, mawkish tale—the sort of nonsense Nicholas Sparks might produce if he went period—working under any circumstances, but as scripted by the numbers by Richard LaGravanese and directed slackly by Lawrence, the picture is entirely too slick to capture a true Depression feel and way too discreet and tentative to be really passionate. The casting is amiss, too. Witherspoon is a fine comedienne, but she comes across as brittle and unconvincing in this role, which so many actress in the thirties and forties could have handled effortlessly. Pattinson deploys all the thespian resources at his disposal—which prove to be very rudimentary indeed, involving a sheepish smile and an appropriately self-deprecating “aw-shucks” demeanor but not much else. Waltz, on the other hand, is an actor of considerable ability, but the role of August gives him little to do but shout and flash an evil, shark-like grin. He’s not a Nazi this time around, but might as well be. The only other people in the cast who make much of an impression are Holbrook, who does his irascible old man routine with his usual aplomb, and Norton, who overdoes the grizzled drunk bit. Rosie’s impressive, though.
Technically “Waiting for Elephants” is a professional job, though Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is awfully glossy and gauzy—pretty rather than gritty—and James Newton Howard’s score too often opts for the obvious sappy gestures. But Jack Fisk’s production design, David Crank’s art direction and Jacqueline West’s costumes are certainly effective.
They’re not the reason, however, why the movie makes you feel like you’re in a time warp; you come out of it feeling you’ve spent two hours not so much in 1931 as in 1957 or so, having sat through an imitation of “The Greatest Show on Earth” or “Trapeze.” The closest recent comparison is to 1992’s “Shining Through,” which tried—and failed—to copy a typical forties war epic. This attempt to emulate an old-fashioned romantic triangle in a circus setting isn’t much better. And it’s hardly likely to match the success of “Titanic,” which did much the same thing but on a boat, and a much larger scale.