Water for Elephants is partly a sawdust love story, partly a survival story.
It opens with an old man's reminiscence, as Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) tells a young circus hand about his own Depression-era adventures under the big top.
He didn't join the show out of any romantic impulses about carnival life. His well-planned veterinary career was torpedoed by a family tragedy. And the first train he could hop just happened to be carrying roustabouts; a menagerie; a gorgeous trick rider named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon); and her possessive husband, the circus' owner and ringmaster, August (Christoph Waltz). That's where the romance comes in. And the survival drama, too.
Twentysomething Jacob (Robert Pattinson, looking much nicer tanned and smiling than he does in the Twilight series) gets a crash course in circus etiquette. The workers hate the performers, the train doesn't slow down when deadbeats get tossed off, the coochie dancers like to tease virginal lads, and the animals produce staggering quantities of manure. As to the age-old commandment Keep Your Hands Off the Boss's Wife, he is respectful. At least initially.
A handsome, expensive-looking adaptation of Sara Gruen's 2006 best-seller, Water for Elephants balances the colorful glitz of a three-ring spectacle with the atmospheric realism that a rich drama demands. The sideline characters are hokey stereotypes, but the main trio is well developed.
Witherspoon, doing her best work since her Oscar-winning turn in Walk the Line, is a decent, dutiful wife struggling with her feelings for Pattinson's kind, hunky animal lover. Waltz gives his role surprising depth. He's a commanding personality, shading into cruelty, but you don't want to poke his eyes out. He can be both ruthless and kind, and when he acts out violently, he's contrite. After savagely beating Rosie the elephant, the new star attraction, he's mortified for losing control and sends her bottles of his best whiskey in apology.
But some infractions can't be excused, and Marlena and Jacob find themselves dancing a precarious tightrope duet of suppressed desire. Their animal attraction, mirrored in the show's half-tame animals, eventually pours out, with catastrophic results. This is a story with one happy ending but many unhappy ones.
Director Francis Lawrence, who brought a richly detailed feel to the fantasy worlds of I Am Legend and Constantine, is right at home in the equally artificial milieu of a 1930s circus. He works new ground here, however. The scenes of spectacle, spangly aerialists and lion tamers are few. The film's focus is on the dramatic interplay among its top-line actors, shot in adoring close-ups.
Witherspoon's costumer did a great job fitting her with theatrical spotlight attire and sleek Jean Harlow gowns for romantic nights on the town; her hairdresser spun her locks into an alluring platinum haze. Pattinson seems to improve as the movie goes along, over-indicating at first but gradually relaxing into his naïve, awkward character. And the endlessly entertaining Waltz moves beyond his silky-monster thing to create a character who deserves admiration and pity, as well as scorn.
Even if your circus taste runs more to Soleil than Ringling, there's a lot here to like.