Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.28.11

Cirque de So-So
Water for Elephants is a tall drink of tepid
by Molly Templeton

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS: Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Sara Gruen. Cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto. Editor, Alan Edward Bell. Music, James Newton Howard. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider and Hal Holbrook. 20th Century Fox, 2011. PG-13. 122 minutes.

Robert Pattinson (left) and Rosie in Water for Elephants

Forget the relative comforts of the movie theater. Water for Elephants is a movie for watching while sprawled on the sofa, slightly hungover (if you’re inclined that way) on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Its one of those movies: It looks nice, and its smart enough to keep your attention, but it falls short of outstanding, or even “very good.” It just is.

A large part of the blame for this lies squarely with the casting. Theres nothing to complain about in Christoph Waltzs turn as the mercurial, self-centered August, who runs the Benzini Brothers Circus, though I wonder if Waltz looks forward to the day hes cast as the nice doctor or some other non-quietly-menacing fellow. But youll spot no sparks between Reese Witherspoon and Robert “RPattz” Pattinson, playing, respectively, Augusts wife and the circus trains latest stowaway, Jacob Jankowski, whos taken to the rails after a tragedy.

Jacobs story makes little sense if you apply the tiniest bit of logic to it; for that matter, a few key plot points in the film suffer from what I imagine is a certain condensation from Sara Gruens novel. Coincidence that works in print often comes off as contrivance on the screen. Even if the convenience of Jacob hopping a circus train right after leaving veterinary school ã thereby guaranteeing he can make himself useful by tending to the animals ã can be forgiven, a later coincidence involving a balky elephant is still a bit much to swallow.

RPattz holds down the middle of the film like a drummer who only knows one beat but knows it very, very well: steady, gentle and reliable. Hes plenty good at staring smolderingly at Witherspoons Marlena ã a talent he likely perfected while starring as Edward Cullen in the Twilight flicks ã but neither Pattinson nor Richard LaGraveneses script can come up with a reason for these two pretty young people to fall in love (other than that theyre pretty and young, and August is a first-class jerk).

Water for Elephants fares better with the ugly truth behind the circus magical fa ade. Without ever forcing a character to come out and say so, the story emphasizes how much pain and ugliness goes on behind the scenes in order to concoct an afternoons entertainment ã and suggests that none of this cruelty is necessary. The performance scenes glow, full of smiling faces, elegant trapeze artists and graceful steeds. But one of the horses is hurting, and the ringmaster doesnt care.

Jacob Jankowski cares. Jacob Jankowski cares, and does the right thing, and wants to save the pretty girl (who might be a more interesting character if she were to even nod toward maybe saving herself) and give the lions a better dinner. Water for Elephants dreams of being an old-fashioned spectacle, a love story with an unusual setting and a lot of excuses to linger on costumes and trains. Beautifully shot (by Babel cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto), over-gushingly scored (by The Dark Knight composer James Newton Howard) and guided by director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) with a calm but uninspired hand, the film coasts along steadily, hitting its marks but never doing more than it needs to. It does, however, make me want to read Gruens novel, maybe on a rainy Sunday afternoon.