‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages…welcome to the Cirque De Disinterest’….or alternatively, to Francis Lawrence’s circus period drama ‘Water For Elephants.’ Adapted from the New York Times Bestseller by Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants tells the story of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), a Polish immigrant in 1930s America prepped to pass his final Veterinary Science exams at Cornell University. Following the tragic death of his parents in a car accident, Jacob is left homeless and his Ivy-League education is put on hiatus. As he stumbles along the railroad, suitcase in hand in search of work, Jacob train-hops himself onto the extensive touring entourage of the Benzini Brothers Circus. For Edward Cullen; it’s time to enter the Big Top.
Languid, lifeless and lethargic, Water For Elephants has the filmic personality of a sedated circus animal. After a brush of mild peril with the circus muscle, Jacob is promised a job by a fellow Polish worker and is eventually taken to see circus owner August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). Hired as a vet for the circus animals, Jacob is drawn to August’s wife, the icy circus performer, or alternatively rather dull, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). As he mopes around her in his circus slacks, exchanging lingering gazes filled with awkward longing, the audience watches a tepid love affair unfold. Though tastefully shot with a timid, romantic innocence, the central romance of Water For Elephants lacks the sparks of eroticism, lustre and vivacity needed to give the film momentum.
Pattinson is too placid, blundering his way from scene to scene with an embarrassed uncertainty that is unbecoming of a leading man. Witherspoon seems indifferent to his advances, the amour of her flirtation with her young circus beau better expressed by her slinky, silk period costumes. There is something charming that amidst the current surfeit of special effects in cinema, a film can return to the pleasures of plausible sets and safe, stoic family entertainment. But the melodrama of Water For Elephants becomes increasingly manic, muddling the central love affair into a series of pointlessly prolonged exchanges between husband, wife and lover. As August Rosenbluth, Christoph Waltz performs with a deliciously evil relish. Grappling with paranoid schizophrenia, he struts, he sobs and he scuffles, piercing a dull narrative with flashes of malice.
The true star of Water For Elephants however, is graceful, majestic and noble; she is also an elephant named Rosie. These scenes are the true delight of this self-satisfied, elaborate snooze-fest. Though Water For Elephants succeeds as a bland, broad-based model of secure family-friendly Sunday-afternoon schmaltz, it flinches from the gritty, bitter, sideshow of Depression-era, rough-and-tumble circus life that its audience receive only in terse, polished glimpses. Disappointingly, the sex scenes between Pattinson and Witherspoon also display the same frigidity.
Perhaps Water For Elephants was intended to pay tribute to a Cecil B. DeMille showcase of Classical Hollywood showmanship and seamless style. But with a soul-less heartthrob, a bored Oscar winner that’s reached her zenith and a plethora of invisible, interesting background characters… it’s never quite going to be the greatest show on earth.