It’s one thing to make a movie set in the Depression-era 1930s, but “Water For Elephants,” based on the Sara Gruen bestseller, often looks as if it was made in the 1930s. This is not altogether a bad thing. The film has a pleasing retro-ness that often mitigates the dullness.
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is a Cornell veterinary student who, following a family tragedy, ends up joining a traveling circus presided over by the autocratic August (Christoph Waltz). August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is its star attraction. Even if you haven’t read the book, you can see where this is going.
Marlena is first glimpsed by the agog Jacob atop her magnificent white show horse. She is beholden to August because he plucked her from poverty but she can’t mistake Jacob’s barely banked ardor for her. Neither can August. Since August is often cruel, not only to his circus people but to his animals, it’s only a matter of time – too much time – before he and Jacob square off.
Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese wisely resist the urge to get all fancy and Felliniesque about the hardscrabble circus life. But the Depression that we see is a bit too gussied up and commemorative. People in this movie aren’t starving, just hungry. (An infusion of Walker Evans-style pictorialism would have better set the mood.) Likewise, Marlena, given her background, isn’t hard-bitten enough. We should be able to see, in her communions with both August and Jacob, a survivor with an eye for the main chance.
Pattinson seems at home here, maybe because he’s relieved at not having to play a vampire for a change. That role, literally almost, goes to Waltz, who confirms the gift for preening nastiness that had its fullest flower in “Inglourious Basterds.”
The best film’s best performance, though, comes from Rosie the elephant, trained by Jacob and maimed by August. She has expert timing, knows how to listen to the other actors, wails convincingly, and uses her trunk with aplomb. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.)