It’s always hard for me to write a review for something that I neither loved nor loathed. Such is the case for the movie adaptation of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (which I haven’t read), starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz. It has talented actors, nice production values, and beautiful costumes but for some reason doesn’t connect emotionally.
Set during the Depression, it’s the story of Young Jacob (Pattinson), a Cornell veterinary science student who joins the circus as the vet after a family tragedy leaves him homeless. He falls for the star attraction, Marlena (Witherspoon), who’s married to the evil Machiavellian boss, August (Waltz). Jacob struggles between his need for a job and the horror he feels when he sees August mistreat the animals. In the end, Jacob has to decide what kind of life he wants and whether he can give Marlena the one she deserves.
Though the movie has one heartthrob and two Oscar winners in it, Tai the elephant, as Rosie, steals every scene she’s in. She’s more expressive than Pattinson, makes us gasp in wonder, whimper in pain in sympathy, and clap with delight. She has more chemistry with the humans than the leads have with each other, which is ultimately the movie’s downfall.
This is the first time I’ve seen Pattinson play a normal person without any wizardly or vampiric powers and he’s rather…dull. There’s no extra oomph factor that makes an actor truly memorable on screen. Meanwhile, the normally spunky Witherspoon is subdued as the trapped Marlena. They both look great—her slinky gowns are to die for—but there’s absolutely no heat between them. When you can’t feel the love in a love story, it’s a problem.
Waltz’s performance as the capricious August is masterful; the actor made me tense from bracing for the violence that might erupt from his character at any time without warning. I can’t think of many actors who could’ve played this part as well as he did. But it’s similar to what Waltz did in Inglorious Basterds and therefore didn’t feel as fresh.
Since I’ve never seen a live circus, I did enjoy the few glimpses of the show under the big top. I marveled at the acrobats and Rosie doing her tricks. But once the lights in the theater came up, the movie left me with an empty feeling, as if the circus had moved on and left me wanting more.
Nerd verdict: Elephants lacks emotional weight
Photos: David James