Silver Screen: Water for Elephants ***

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Silver Screen: Water for Elephants ***
Bryan Miller

There aren't a lot of movies made about the circus, but then again, there aren't a lot of circuses anymore. In a newfangled world of videogames and 3D cartoons, it's just not as easy to thrill youngsters with decidedly oldfangled entertainments like rigged games of skill, boozy nomad-clowns slowly pickling beneath layers of greasepaint, little people mocked for their size, and sad, abused animals forced to degrade themselves before returning to their steam-powered prison trains. What's the matter with kids today?

As a consequence, the thoroughly adequate big-top drama Water for Elephants earns points sheerly for the novelty of its subject. Circus life is a unique and somewhat unexplored subculture, one director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend), working from a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese adapted from Sara Gruen's novel, examines without the hoary gloss of nostalgia. In that sense it's a little shaggy around the edges for a story told with such vehement adherence to convention.

Water for Elephants' structure is taken right out of James Cameron's Titanic playbook: Misty-eyed old person recounts youthful, seemingly doomed love affair set against tragic but cursorily examined historical backdrop.

Filling in for Gloria Stewart during the frame-story sequences is Hal Holbrook, here playing a withered but with-it old-timer who wanders onto the lot of a modern-day circus after hours and strikes up a conversation with head honcho Paul Schneider. It's not long before the conversation becomes a voiceover narrative that transports us back to the bad old days of the Great Depression, where the wise old Holbrook is replaced by teen dreamboat Robert Pattinson (a very poor trade indeed).

Pattinson's Jacob is the son of hardworking immigrants who mortgaged their life savings to send him to veterinary school. They die in an offscreen car crash mere moments before Jacob is to take the final exam that will net him a veterinarian's license-- apparently it never occurred to his professors to let the poor guy finish the test before they break the bad news. Somewhat inexplicably, a shattered Jacob forsakes his entire future in favor of walking toward less noble work in Ithica, New York, but en route he's picked up by some friendly circus folk whose wheezing steam engine is carrying them toward what could well be the last of their performances before the whole outfit goes out of business.

It's a serendipitous meeting. Jacob's trained (but not officially certified) eye detects a malady in the lead horse of the show's star attraction, which also features a pretty blonde performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). (Don't worry, it's not that kind of attraction.) Jacob's humane treatment of the horse wins him Marlena's affection, and she convinces her hotheaded husband, ringmaster and owner August (Christoph Waltz), to hire him on as a caretaker for the animals. That soon includes a new star attraction, a temperamental elephant that breathes new life into the old show.

We're told in the early frame-story sequences that this particular circus went belly-up the same year Jacob joined it due to one of the greatest accidents in the history of the big top, so Lawrence is constantly introducing new possibilities for catastrophe. Will this inevitable disaster involve the new elephant, the cages full of ill-treated jungle cats, the increasingly mutinous road crew, or the quick-tempered ringmaster? In keeping with the Titanic comparison, it's like knowing the ship is going to sink but not being sure if the iceberg will be the culprit.

Counterintuitively, that mystery becomes less compelling the closer we get to the climactic tragedy, in part because the rest of the film is so bloodless and conventionally staged. Likewise, Jacob's budding forbidden romance with Marlena is a foregone conclusion that grows colder exactly when the sparks should be flying.

What grows more intriguing as the film stretches on is the tangled relationship between Marlena and the mercurial August, an intriguing figure prone to both bouts of generosity and violent rages that threaten the lives of man and animal alike. Waltz, who was so marvelously villainous in his Academy Award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, is almost as darkly compelling here, although not nearly as loathsome. Despite his penchant for evil, he's not entirely unsympathetic; he bears the burden not just of his own imperiled livelihood but that of the entire company. Though the film barely even attempts to explore the demons that drive August, Waltz is able to suggest more than the material has to offer. With the great Holbrook relegated to a few brief scenes, Waltz's August quickly becomes the movie's center.

Pattinson, meanwhile, proves that he's not merely penned in by the vapid Twilight scripts. Turns out he is, in fact, just not very good at all. His thick features-- gummy lips, bulbous chin, wide forehead, mile-high cheekbones-- are nearly immobile and in no way suited to a range of expression. If his face were hands, it'd be all thumbs. He's not irritating so much as barely present, and there's a gaping hole where the protagonist is supposed to be. As a consequence, the plucky Witherspoon is left with no real partner, and her interactions with her blatantly antagonistic husband provide her best moments. But Pattinson's the weakest link in a film that otherwise makes no major missteps but strangely manages to seem vague and bland despite its unique subject matter. Water for Elephants isn't even The Greatest Show in Your Local Mall Movietheater.