‘Water for Elephants’: Love under the Big Top

Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) come together through their compassion for a special elephant named Rosie.
David James | AP
Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) come together through their compassion for a special elephant named Rosie.
Posted April 21, 2011, at 10:18 p.m.

Like the circus that provides the setting for Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel “Water for Elephants,” the movie based on the 2006 book is big, slick and showy.

Step right up for heartthrob Robert Pattinson! Prepare to be amazed by Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz! See them interact with an actual elephant!

It is also undeniably effective entertainment.

The standout among its star attractions is the Austrian-born Waltz as the mercurial-to-the-point-of-psychopathic August Rosenbluth. In the book, his character was the head animal trainer of the Depression-era Benzini Brothers Circus, where the action takes place. In Richard LaGravanese’s mostly respectful adaptation, August has been elevated to owner, ringmaster and trainer. The promotion suits Waltz — who tears into the part, and his character’s flat American dialect  — with all the relish and surgical precision of a starving man facing a plate of chicken wings. Waltz does everything but lick his fingers in the juicy role, which calls for the same high-wire mix of charm and insanity he demonstrated in “Inglourious Basterds.” He’s a thrilling performer to watch.

It is August who hires the film’s narrator, Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), a student of veterinary medicine forced to drop out of Cornell and join the circus when his parents are killed. And it is August who is married to the ravishing circus performer Marlena (Witherspoon), who catches Jacob’s eye. Needless to say, with August around, that’s not a good thing.

But their attraction is also the most predictable aspect of “Water,” which, like a well-rehearsed circus animal, occasionally has the feeling that it’s merely going through the motions. You know where it’s headed. Still fun to watch.

Fortunately, the movie, like the book, has other things going for it. In addition to being a tale of star-crossed lovers, it’s also both a young man’s coming-of-age saga and a fairly fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse at the the seedy side of early 20th century showmanship. The flies, manure and slop are plentiful here, as is mistreatment of animals. That enrages Jacob, and along with his growing affection for Marlena, it fuels his inevitable clash with August. But it makes the film at times hard to stomach, especially for the more sensitive animal lovers.

Visually, the film is a handsome thing. With the help of production designer Jack Fisk (“There Will Be Blood”), filmmaker Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) conjures a mostly believable world, circa 1931, of acrobats, sideshow entertainers, clowns and roustabouts down on their luck. You won’t ever forget that you’re watching a show, but it’s a highly watchable show nonetheless.

If anything suffers in the translation from page to screen, it’s the coming-of-age component of the story. As LaGravanese shifts Jacob and Marlena’s romance into the center ring, his script soft-pedals the theme of disillusionment that the idealistic Jacob experiences. That theme, that fakery and cruelty underlie a world of wonder and beauty, is still there, but it shines more dimly next to the spotlighted love story.

In his meatiest major-studio role outside the “Twilight” canon, Pattinson acquits himself well. Witherspoon conveys Marlena’s complex relationship to August — one hovering between dependence and fear — with her usual openheartedness.

“To talent and illusion,” says August at one point, offering a toast to what matters in the circus.

It also matters in Hollywood. And there’s just enough of each of those qualities to make “Water for Elephants,” if not the greatest show on earth, at least a pretty good one.

“Water for Elephants” (PG-13, 120 minutes) contains some obscenity, brief sensuality, violence and scenes of cruelty toward animals.

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