This is the film adaptation of the Sara Gruen best-seller published by Chapel Hill's Algonquin Books, and the success of its 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
. 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 (Inglourious Basterds
) ends up not so much stealing scenes as simply swallowing them. The most compelling performance comes from a trained elephant called Tai that plays Rosie, the circus' star attraction. Otherwise, the texture of the 1930s big top world is the best thing about Water for Elephants