I never read Sara Gruen’s novel, but having seen the film version of “Water For Elephants,” I have a pretty good idea what to expect. I have no doubt that Richard LaGravenese has crafted the classiest possible version of what feels like a very old-fashioned melodrama, while leaving much of the texture of Gruen’s novel intact. I’m almost curious enough to go read a few chapters now to see if my guess is right.
Almost. The thing is, what praise I have for “Water For Elephants” isn’t really about the story. Instead, I’m impressed by a few of the performers and, in particular, by the way director Francis Lawrence approached the material. Especially in the first half of the film, he captures a romantic version of the circus on film that I’m not sure ever really existed. He makes it feel real, though, and evokes a nostalgia for a time when you could hop the rails in search of some sort of direction when your life was falling apart, and when running away with the circus was this charming possibility. There’s one scene in particular, the first time they’re setting up the circus and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is watching them, that is honestly one of the best versions of that scene I’ve ever seen done. It’s alluring in all the right ways, and by the end of it, I wanted to run away and join the circus, too, if only for a weekend.
The film itself is a little more uneven. There are some things I like quite a bit about the film, but there are things about it that also land with a thud. I think you should take measure of your own appetite for romantic melodrama and use that to steer your decision about whether or not this one’s for you. It’s “Notebook” country, although nowhere near as scientifically and successfully manipulative as that one. Like that film and “Titanic,” this movie is built around a present-day framing device. An old man shows up at the circus, looking for his son, and realizes he’s too late. The show’s over. The guy running the circus invites the old man in out of the rain, and they start talking about the old days. Anytime you put two actors like Hal Holbrook and Paul Schneider in a room just talking, they’ll do right by you, and the framing device certainly works at setting up the story. Right up front, there’s an indicator of where the film is going, a mention of what we can expect from the resolution, and so the film becomes all about getting to that thing they mention.
It makes me laugh that Robert Pattinson is playing a character named Jacob in this one, but honestly, he continues to impress me as a guy who just needs to get past this particular moment in his career so he can start being viewed as an actor and not just his franchise. Jacob is in his last year at Cornell, studying to be a vet, when his parents are both killed in a car accident. It’s the depth of the Great Depression, and Jacob learns that his father has left him absolutely nothing. No house. No money. Only a pile of debt. Dazed and adrift, he ends up near a train track, and he hears that midnight whistle. He catches a ride, and before he knows it, he finds himself drawn into the orbit of August (Christoph Waltz), the owner and ringleader for the Banzini Brothers Circus. More importantly, he finds himself drawn to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), August’s wife and star attraction. Jacob makes himself indispensable to the show and ends up hired to be the vet for all of the animals. And for a while, the romance is between Jacob and this new life that he’s dropped into.
Gradually, though, as he starts to learn the nature of both August and Marlena, he realizes that things are more complicated than they seemed at first. The circus is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, August is a cruel taskmaster, and Marlena is a caged bird. Just when it seems the brakes are about to come off, August makes a final effort and buys an elephant. He assigns Jacob to handle it, and he tells Marlena that she’s going to learn to ride it. Everything depends on the two of them making the new act work, so emotions are running high even before Jacob and Marlena start to recognize an attraction to one another. Once they do, though, all bets are off, and things begin to accelerate to an eventual and duly apocalyptic ending.
For me, Pattinson and Waltz are the movie. Witherspoon seems wildly miscast, and that may be my personal thing. Marlena is meant to be this angel, this creature who casts a spell over Jacob the moment he sees her, who drives August to madness, and I just don’t buy it with Reese. Pattinson doesn’t have to express much range here, but he does exactly what he’s been hired to do. Waltz was definitely hired to play a character not unlike what he played in “Inglorious Basterds,” which is not to say I think this was influenced by that film. It’s just that you need a very particular guy to play both charming and spitting mad, sometimes within the same scene, and Waltz has demonstrated an ability to suggest all sorts of things simmering deep down inside.
Technically, the film is handsomely made, and Rodrigo Prieto deserves special praise for the burnished hues of nostalgia he captured in the movie. James Newton Howard, on the other hand, scored this thing to within an inch of its life, and it gets oppressive at times.
No matter. For the audience that is familiar with the book or that just wants a two-handed weepie this weekend, “Water For Elephants” will deliver. My only words of warning would be that if you are sensitive to abuse of animals, even simulated, you might not be able to hang with this.
Or you’ll grab a bull hook and chase Christoph Waltz down.
Either way, “Water For Elephants” opens tomorrow in theaters nationwide.