"Water for Elephants" is a spectacular story. An epic, Depression-era circus romance with hard-luck heroes, charismatic villains, edge-of-your-seat suspense, jealousy, revenge, wit, heart and of course a marvelous elephant named Rosie. It’s a historically inspired ode to the big top that’s larger than life. So it’s no surprise that I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Richard Lagravenese (P.S. I Love You) decided to stage Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel in the grandest venue of all--the big screen.
At a little over two hours, the film Water for Elephants stays true to Gruen’s tale in the time it has. Though it merges trainer August and circus boss Al into one character (they’re better together). It begins with 93-year-old former circus vet Jacob Jankowski lamenting old age--the anticlimactic finale to a “big life” that reduces him to sneaking out of his nursing home at night to stand in the rain waiting to see the Circus Vargus set up. The adaptation, thankfully, spends less time on his misery (a Notebook-esque downer enough to make everyone dread their “golden years”). After one last gripe about his neglectful children to the kind Vargus manager trying to contact the nursing home, he’s off reminiscing about his menagerie man days.
Fade to 1931, and despite the Depression, on the final day of exams 23-year-old Cornell veterinary student Jacob’s (Robert Pattinson) future looks bright. Then, his parents die in a car crash. Left penniless due to debts, and with no other family, Jacob does what other impoverished men of the age do, and hits the rails, hoofing it Albany to seek work. When a train approaches he hops on. While Benzini Bros. bouncer Blackie prefers tossing him out, grandfatherly lush Camel convinces him that his clothes prove he’s no “bum”. Not sure if he “chose the train or it chose him” Jacob smiles at serendipity.
Camel is his ticket into a big top universe of exotic beasts, lusty Coochie Girls, and high-flying feats. A “heaven” that awes him, especially its dazzling equestrian star circus owner August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Instantly smitten, he offers to examine her limping stallion and soon talks his way into a job as the circus vet. His first day he defies August and is nearly redlighted, i.e. pitched off a moving train. (also August’s favorite downsizing strategy.) He’s the sort of schizo tyrant Waltz can sink his teeth into: despicable, yet charming; brutal yet wounded. “Nobody “ observes Marlena “stops [working] or dies ‘til August says so”. He’s a champion of animal cruelty, but he’s also a businessman struggling to save Benzini Bros. from becoming like the circus carcasses of tattered tents and homeless lions they cannibalize. Either way he’s the last person you want in your love triangle.
While Waltz’s evil ringmaster is the stuff of second Oscars, an actor less moony-eyed and -mouthed than Rpatz might have made Jacob more captivating--though it’s hard to point a finger at anything truly amiss with his performance. Holbrook's also a bit flat. It’s easy to envision Michael Gambon delivering more vim and vigor. Witherspoon does Marlena well and has good-enough chemistry with Patterson. As to the rest--set, costumes, prohibition raids, circus-rube grifts, and wafting Louis Armstrong ballads --Lawrence aptly captures a snapshot of the nostalgic allure and gritty harshness of the time. At moments, close ups (like Rosie's headstands and well-timed hat stealing) and low perspectives make one daydream they’re at the center of a 1930s circus. At other times however, jigsaw scene crops and awkward head shut you out of the story. Like Camel’s train-car tour of circus society--so narrowly framed we hardly glimpse the colorful people he describes.
If Gruen’s true-to-life tale stole your heart, you’ll be thrilled a film finally breathed life into it. If you haven’t read it, you’ll likely still be entertained--especially by Waltz and Rosie. Water for Elephants may not be the best show on earth, but it's still quite a show.