Although the results are mixed, the achievements are very real.
For those not among the four million purchasers of Gruen’s novel, the story is set in the Great Depression, in a world of traveling big-top circuses, with their exotic animals and humans along with the carnies, tinkers and suckers. What works best in this film, adapted for the screen by Richard LaGravenese, is the magnificent attention to detail. The single best shot in the film is of the carnies raising the canvas big top in yet another dreary town; in a movie culture where we expect this kind of thing to be faked through digital effects and quick cutting, it’s nice to linger over the timbers and canvas and rope.
The success of the film’s mise en scene is due to Jack Fisk, who is one of the best production designers in the business—his credits include There Will Be Blood, The New World, Mulholland Dr. and Days of Heaven. There’s no rosy hue to the world of Water for Elephants, but it’s rarely less than gorgeous under the lens work of Rodrigo Prieto (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Brokeback Mountain).
Considerably less compelling are the two actors at the center, Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Pattinson, who plays Jacob, a young veterinary student forced to take a job with a traveling circus, may be the hunk of the moment, but his performance is inert and witless. He can’t stop looking like the smug jock in a teen comedy. Witherspoon, who plays Marlena, the star attraction of the circus who performs first with horses, then with an elephant, stopped being an interesting actress long ago, but she gets no help from a story that renders her the passive object of a rivalry between Jacob and her husband August, who owns the circus with a greedy heart and a violent temper.
Playing Marlena's husband opposite two flat, dull foils, Christoph Waltz ends up not so much stealing scenes as simply swallowing them. Waltz is best known for his Oscar-winning performance as a seductive, ironic monster in Inglourious Basterds, and here he seems to be trying to repeat the trick. His performance as an alcoholic, jealous and violent man is certainly terrifying, but his mixture of purrs and sneers and sobs is a baffling one that seems belong less to Depression-era America and more to a film about a psychopathic Latin American dictator (he even has troublesome employees tossed to their deaths from moving trains).
Paul Schneider and Hal Holbrook also appear in the film’s present-day framing narrative; it’s an unnecessary device, but it’s nice to see Holbrook—who plays Jacob as an old man. One wishes that the voiceover narration—also unnecessary—used throughout the film had been spoken by him rather than Pattinson.
The most moving performance in the film, however, is by a trained elephant named Tai, who plays Rosie, the four-ton pachyderm who enters the story midway through and remains its central object of fascination. Gruen’s story doesn’t skimp on the cruelty of 1930s circuses, and a scene in which Rosie is subjected to August’s violent temper is absolutely heartrending.
Although one wishes for a more subtly written and performed love triangle, the film isn't dull, and its sense of period detail is reason enough to see it—and enough to place it in the company of other authentic circus films, such as Freaks. And, in spite of its weaknesses, Water for Elephants carries the signal virtue of hearkening to a tradition of sweeping period melodrama, the kind of movie one wishes were made more often.