Water For Elephants
feels like it wants to hit the high water marks of historical romance, or at least the expected conventions: take a couple of attractive actors, put one or both of them into a loveless marriage, strike up a forbidden romance that’s fraught with peril, then throw in a little dancing and some pretty outfits and call it a day. It’s a formula that’s been working since the days of Anna Karenina
and Lady Chatterley’s Lover
, but Water
still manages to founder on the lackluster performances of its leads and a deadly lack of verve.
All of which is too bad, since the film gets off to a great start with limpid-eyed Hal Holbrook
reminiscing about his days in the circus with the always-likable Paul Schneider
. It’s a great framing mechanism, and it’s easy to feel for Holbrook, who manages to make even his stock character (an irascible old-timer brought to tears by a glance at a picture of the girl he used to love) feel imbued with personality in the short amount of screen time he has. It’s a start that might be a bit too
good, as Robert Pattinson
has a hard time filling his shoes when we flash back to 1931, the year in which their character, Jacob, quits veterinary school and joins the circus after the death of his parents.
What follows feels like it should be a convincing portrayal of the ups and downs of a hardscrabble crew of circus folk, but Water For Elephants
throws a series of softballs at the audience, mostly thanks to its almost exclusive focus on Jacob’s character. He quickly becomes enthralled with star performer Marlena, who happens to be married to the circus’ owner, August. A substandard romantic triangle ensues: can Jacob manage to win the heart of Marlena away from the cruel and abusive August? Can he help the poor, mistreated animals of the circus? Will he win the respect of the carnies and performers who look down on the college boy in their midst? If you think the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then thanks for playing, but please try again.
films have perhaps made it a bit too easy to dismiss Pattinson as an actor, but it’s hard to imagine anyone taking a character as dull as Edward Cullen
and doing much with him. Pattinson’s got a charming smile, and he shows it off to great effect here, but still, looks are a poor substitute for charisma or acting instinct, neither of which he’s exactly bursting with in Water For Elephants
. He’s not done any great favors by a screenplay that feels cheaply sentimental at times, but he’s still incapable of even acting drunk convincingly. What’s unfortunate is that Reese Witherspoon
, normally an engaging and winsome actress, doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself in the absence of a capable co-star to bounce herself off of, giving one of her least impactful performances in recent years here as Marlena. The romance between the pair is sandpaper dry.
That’s both bad and good for Christoph Waltz
, so memorable in Inglourious Basterds
, who turns in another wonderful performance as August. It’s good in the sense that he manages to easily steal scenes from his two co-stars, but it’s bad that you wind up magnetized by the villain of the piece, instead of focusing on what should be a captivating romance between the two leads. This could’ve worked had Water
been a bit more playful, as Basterds
was, but the solemnity of the film makes him simply come across as merely ruthless and impossible to identify with. Water For Elephants
has the feel of a movie that should be better than it is, but settles for mere serviceability. It’s not dull, precisely, but it lacks wit and brio, or any kind of motive energy that might help mask the uninteresting performances of its leads. It’s all well crafted, but it’s difficult to engage with a dramatic romance when there’s little of the former and less of the latter.