Seeking to prove he had the chops for more dramatic fare, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) directed this adaptation of Sara Gruen’s novel by noted screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), but he ended up hedging his bets a bit with the casting of Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson as the dreamy veterinarian lead opposite Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz in this tragic sideshow romantic triangle.
With a Titanic-styled framing device — Old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) relaying the sordid story of what happened during the “infamous” three-ring incident to a contemporary circus manager (Paul Schneider) — the drama kicks off as soon as the “sparks” between the younger Jacob (Pattinson) and the perky star performer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be the wife of the tyrannical August (Waltz).
Animals and carny workers get horribly mistreated, and I suppose we should relate this to life during the Great Depression, although Lawrence and LaGravenese do little to make that point resonate for us.
The production is certainly crisp, clean and faintly nostalgic in the way that modern films can be, but there’s nothing particularly transporting about the effects. Water for Elephants is a big-top full of creaky old-fashioned clichés, but Waltz is the main attraction, doing what he does best — playing the hammy villain to the hilt — although it is time for him to break out of the mold before it sets hard and fast around him. Grade: C-