What you see beats what you get
“Water for Elephants” is a period piece handsomely created by production designer Jack Fisk and costumed by Jacqueline West. In Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel, the story’s predictable twists were offset by compelling relationships, but in this adaptation, her star-crossed lovers, played by Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, lack urgency, are short on romantic chemistry, and fall victim to the script’s humdrum dialog. Most disappointing, these characters appear stolen from 1931 and retrofitted to reflect present-day sensibilities.
The film isn’t universally dull, thanks to its Depression-era circus, a marvelous elephant named Rosie, and the circus’ owner August, a mercurial fellow played by Christoph Waltz who took home the Oscar for his fascinating portrayal in “Inglourious Basterds.”
After a personal tragedy disrupts Jacob’s (Pattinson) veterinary studies at Cornell, he hops aboard the first train that happens along. It belongs to the Benzini Brothers traveling circus, housing roustabouts, performers, and a menagerie of big cats and horses. Jacob is taken under the wing of crew supervisor Camel (a deftly nuanced and underused Jim Norton), but Jacob ignores Camel’s warning when he becomes enamored of the owner’s wife and the star performer, Marlena (Witherspoon).
Though August feeds his animals poorly, he hires Jacob as his circus vet, paying him $9 per week. Marlena and Jacob bond over the fate of her ailing stallion, Silver Star, and again over Rosie, a glorious pink-and-gray-mottled Indian elephant played by a 42-year-old pachyderm named Tai.
Rather than the action, the film relies on its forbidden romance, and August’s menacing outbursts, to move its story forward. The scenes of animal abuse are genuinely disturbing, but the tale takes a particularly heinous turn when we learn that August frequently “redlights” his underperforming human employees, by throwing them from the speeding train.
In keeping with its PG-13 rating, these depraved acts occur off screen. We can’t help wondering whether other off-screen moments account for the romantic feelings that develop between Marlena and Jacob because their relationship seems more like that of a brother and sister than that of lovers compelled to risk their lives for the chance to be together.
Narrated from the present day by elderly Jacob (played by Hal Holbrook), the film is neither unpleasant nor boring, despite its many flaws. Witherspoon, now 35, forgoes her perky reputation to invest Marlena with a deeply repressed, but strong will. Little is asked of pretty-boy Pattinson, and that’s what he delivers as he sulks and attempts to square his jaw at the appropriate angle. While only those scenes featuring either August or Rosie arouse our emotions, the film’s old-fashioned emphasis on well-composed visuals, is something to behold.