Never work with children or animals, goes the old saying, but in this particular case it needs a little modification. If you’re a young, hunky actor of decidedly limited range, known exclusively for your role as a smoldering undead heartthrob and looking to prove yourself in a movie about actual human beings, you might want to avoid working opposite two Oscar-winners while simultaneously putting yourself in a position to be constantly upstaged by a pachyderm.
Adapted from Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel, Water for Elephants stars Twilight’s Robert Pattinson and his tremulous four-yard stare as Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student in the early ’30s who impulsively jumps onto a circus train following a personal tragedy and winds up being hired to look after the outfit’s numerous animal acts. It’s love at first sight between Jacob and star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), but that doesn’t fly especially well with Marlena’s ringmaster husband, the aggressively paranoid and wantonly cruel August (Christoph Waltz). Will Marlena choose the middle-aged, abusive brute who wants to work a lame horse to death, or the college-age emo dude who puts himself at risk to end the poor animal’s suffering?
It’s a tougher decision than it ought to be, actually, because August, while horrible in almost every way, at least appears animate. With its trite narrative and one-dimensional characters, Water for Elephants would probably never have made a particularly good film, but watching Pattinson strain for emotional depth opposite consummate pros like Witherspoon (who does remarkably flinty work, given the role’s limitations) and Waltz (more or less reversing the charm-to-intimidation ratio he employed in Inglourious Basterds) is a truly painful experience. Hal Holbrook plays Jacob as an old man in the (typically useless) present-day framing device and comes across much livelier from his bed in the nursing home. Even Rosie the elephant has more personality. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) dials down the visual pyrotechnics, providing passable golden-hued period atmosphere, but with one-third of the movie’s romantic triangle effectively AWOL, there’s nothing for eager audiences to munch on except tinsel.