There was a very good movie to be made out of Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen's period novel that was thick on atmospherics and melodrama but thin on character development. It would have required some tweaking, some bold choices from screenwriter Richard LaGravenese in his adaptation, and most of all a willingness from all involved to liven up these characters as more than glamorous paper dolls in the Complete 1931 Circus Set. Instead they have remained true to the book and its faults, creating a movie that's good and engaging but never great, almost exactly as rewarding as the novel but also slightly underwhelming in the end.
Embodying Water for Elephants's polished lack of personality is Robert Pattinson, who occupies the center of the film but never particularly seems to earn it; his character is Jacob Jankowski, an almost-graduate of veterinary school who literally runs away with the circus when he is orphaned after a car accident. The Benzini Bros. Circus is shabby in a romantic way, occupied by friendly exotic dancers and a gruff midget clown with a heart of gold, and Jacob fits in quickly as the resident veterinarian, a role that becomes doubly important when the circus picks up a new elephant named Rosie. Working closely with the circus's star attraction Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who is of course married to the meanie of a ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz), Jacob can't help but fall in love-- both with Marlena and the elephant, who as it turns out is smarter than everyone and has a taste for liquor.
That's pretty much it as far as plot goes in Water for Elephants-- much of Gruen's book gives itself over to the atmospherics of circus life, and the impeccable cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto captures it well, though occasionally it veers from agreeably glossy nostalgia into some serious old-timey hokum. Pattinson and Witherspoon, despite the limits of their earnest and fairly foolish characters, eke out a real spark of romance between them; several slow dances between them crackle with unspoken feelings, and even their lame flirty jokes feel genuine. Lurking over them both like some ghoul of violent circuses past is Waltz's August, essentially Hans Landa in the big top but less fun to be around. Waltz brings shades of honor and even pity to August, but the movie is written in such broad strokes of right and wrong that from the moment August beats Rosie with an iron bar, there's nothing to do but root for his inevitable downfall.
Water for Elephants is two hours long and feels longer; a frame story in which an aged Jacob (Hal Holbrook, believe it or not) tells his story to a patient modern-day circus employee (Paul Schneider) could have been excised entirely, and in the hands of a more capable visual storyteller than Lawrence the specific details of circus life, not to mention Jacob and Marlena's forbidden romance, could have been conveyed far more efficiently. But, perhaps taking a cue from the book, Water for Elephants is a beach read of a movie, broad and unchallenging but spirited and sometimes moving too. It's the kind of froth just strong enough to sweep you up if you'll allow it.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich