Twilight star Robert Pattinson attempts again to diversify beyond the realm of teenage vampires but nonetheless remains safely in his romantic-melodrama wheelhouse in his new film Water for Elephants. Based on Sara Gruen’s depression-set 2006 chick-lit bestseller of the same name it sees him once again pursuing an epic love against which powerful forces are aligned. But on this occasion Pattinson’s greatest adversary may be his own lack of charisma.
Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowski the sensitive and bright only child of Polish immigrant parents who have the unfortunate timing to die in a tragic car accident just as Jacob is about to take his final veterinary exam an exam that he informs us via voiceover he totally would have aced. In that same voiceover he also informs us that he was planning to deflower the girl sitting across from him – which when you think about it is sort of an odd thing to announce via voiceover.
Alas there is to be no acing or deflowering for poor Jacob. Penniless and grief-stricken he hops aboard the nearest train where he’s befriended by a loquacious drunken hobo and offered work with a traveling circus first as a manure-shoveler and then after impressing the circus’ owner and ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) with his intuitive knowledge of equine anatomy as the resident veterinarian for the circus’ four-legged performers.
Complications arise for Jacob when he falls for the outfit’s star attraction the graceful and beguiling Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) whose signature act involves performing tricks astride majestic show horses. Romantic sparks first fly between them when Jacob seeing that Marlena’s best horse is injured and in pain decrees that it must be put down. They decide to do the grim deed together her singing a farewell lullaby to the steed while he puts a bullet in its head. Euthanized horses being a well-known aphrodisiac their mutual attraction is cemented on the spot. It blossoms further with the arrival of an unruly elephant Rosie that they are together tasked with grooming for big-top stardom.
Unfortunately Marlena already belongs to someone else: her husband August. “Belong” is the operative word here. Clearly bipolar and quite possibly homicidal August rules the circus through a mixture of charm – a brusque teutonic variety of charm – and violent intimidation. It’s also how he approaches marriage. Marlena would like to leave her mercurial husband but fears losing her livelihood – and perhaps her life – if she runs off with Jacob.
Water for Elephants is directed by Francis Lawrence – that same Francis Lawrence of such classic cinematic love stories as I Am Legend and Constantine – who successfully infuses the film with a grand old-fashioned quality without resorting to Nick Sparks-level sentiment. (Though he does take care to pile on various estro-centric tropes – scenes of cute suffering animals; RPattz coming to the aid of said cute suffering animals; wistful opening and closing narration by an adorably cantankerous old man; etc.) His main problem seems to be his leading man Pattinson who at least in this early stage in his career doesn’t have the screen presence to hang with Oscar-winning co-stars Witherspoon and Waltz. As a result a film that aims for epic is for the most part inert ambling along slowly for the better part of two hours before collapsing upon itself in a brief gloriously overwrought finale.