As soon as you realize that the ringmaster barking out his greatest-show-on-earth spiel under the big-top tent is none other than Christoph Waltz, of all people, you begin to worry. You worry for Robert Pattinson. Waltz, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the silky SS officer in Inglourious Basterds, is an actor of juicy resources—he operates expertly in an area just this side of hambone—and he commands our attention. Pattinson, on the other hand, despite the stardom he has attained in the Twilight movies, is among the least commanding of performers—in some of the films he’s made outside of the sheltering Twilight umbrella, he fades from memory even as you’re watching him.
And so, sure enough, in Water for Elephants, a circus picture of which Pattinson is nominally the star, every time Waltz enters a scene, deploying his skittery intelligence and unsettling leer, Pattinson is reduced to the role of unhappy observer at an acting master class.
It’s not a good movie, but it’s not an especially awful one, either. It’s just long and dull. (When was the last time a story about running away with a circus gunned anybody’s engine?) The picture was adapted from a book by Sara Gruen—one of those worldwide bestsellers that nobody you know seems to have read. The filmmakers—director Francis Lawrence, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who shot Brokeback Mountain and Biutiful)—have done what they can with the material, but the movie feels like a forced march.
The story is set in 1931, in the depths of the Depression. Pattinson plays Jacob, a son of Polish immigrants who’s studying veterinary medicine at Cornell University. When his parents die—penniless, it turns out—Jacob is forced to leave school; and when the bank repossesses his family home, he hits the road with a sad little suitcase. Walking down some railroad tracks one night, he hears a train approaching. As it roars by, he hops onboard, and finds himself in the traveling headquarters of the Benzini Brothers Circus. Looking back in an unfortunate philosophical moment, he says, “I don’t know if I picked that train, or that train picked me.”
Jacob naturally insinuates himself into this itinerant carny world. He starts out shoveling the manure provided in abundance by the company’s menagerie of lions, tigers, giraffes and hyenas. He bonds with the resident roustabouts, dwarves, and midway coochie dancers. Soon he wins the approval of the smiling but cruel circus owner, August (Waltz), and the amorous interest of August’s wife and featured equestrienne, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, appealing as always, but starved of chemistry opposite Pattinson). When Marlena’s lead stallion falls ill, Jacob diagnoses its affliction as fatal and humanely dispatches it. (“I’m a vet,” he lies. “It’s my decision.”) August is furious about this, but then has an idea. He replaces Marlena’s deceased steed with an elephant. (To which Marlena responds, pricelessly: “I’ve never been on top of an elephant in my life!”)
The elephant, Rosie by name, turns out to be a wayward beast, no matter how much August tries to beat it into submission. Then Jacob makes an amazing discovery: Rosie is difficult to train because…she only understands Polish! And so does Jacob, of course. Problem solved.
We know that the earnest—or at least po-faced—Jacob must soon come into conflict with August, a man who says things like, “The rules of these United States of Suckers don’t apply to us.” And we know that big trouble is on the way after August spots Jacob and Marlena kissing one night. Can these two somehow find a way to be together beyond his possessive reach? Where could they go? And, given their employment resumes, what would they live on? Jacob is unfazed: “We’ll make our way to Ithaca, I’ll call my dean, get my degree.…” Or maybe just run away with a more interesting circus.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published next January by St. Martin’s Press.