Kids and other Robert Pattinson fans won’t be running off to join the circus after seeing “Water for Elephants,” the brutish and violent screen adaptation of Sara Gruen’s novel. Whatever romance Gruen summoned forth from these rough and tumble show people living by their own laws in a traveling, self-contained world of poverty and cruelty, director Francis Lawrence has ground it off.
Perhaps Lawrence was frightened by the circus as a child. But in any event, the director of “I Am Legend” and “Constantine” was ill-suited to be behind the camera on a film meant to evoke at least some memories of “Seabiscuit.”
Screenwriter Richard LaGravanese clumsily re-jigger’s the book’s flashback framing device, bringing an old man, Jacob (Hal Holbrook) to a circus too late to catch “the spec” (the show). He’s slipped away from his minders at the rest home, and proceeds to regale circus manager Charlie (Paul Schneider) with tales of hard times — the Depression, and the epic circus disasters of the day.
Back then Jacob (Robert Pattinson) was a kid whose parents died on the eve of his final exams at veterinary school. Broke and homeless, he hops a freight to anywhere. It just happens to be the train for the Benzini Bros. Circus. Kindly roustabouts take him in and hide him from the circus toughs — thugs who keep order and toss hobos and unwanted employees off the moving train — long enough to wrangle a job out of the bipolar boss, August (Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds”). But it is the boss’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the beauty who rides the show horses, who gets the kid’s attention.
“She didn’t seem real to me, at first,” he narrates. But she is real enough to make him ignore the advice of Camel (Jim Norton), an aged, kindly drunk — “If you got any kind of life to go back to, that’s what you should do.”
Animal cruelty lives alongside human cruelty in this tale of struggling, unsentimental people who can barely afford to feed themselves, much less the livestock. The hazing rituals often have a mortal edge as the mercurial August rules his kingdom with an iron fist, backed up by his thugs. The animals may suffer and the “family” may lack paychecks, but at the drop of a hat, August can summon up champagne and a spare tux for Jacob as he and Marlena entertain “Cornell,” as they call the college boy.
And August really wants to celebrate when he lands an elephant orphaned when her circus failed. Jacob and Marlena have to turn Rosie into an act that will save the Benzini Bros. More champagne! And if not, more beatings for the animals, more cutthroat cruelty for the humans!
At times, the jargon and period detail helps bring this self-contained universe to life, a claustrophobic hierarchical society on rolling stock, living, loving and dying from railcar to railcar, town to town.
Pattinson’s unguarded giggles and grins as he interacts with the elephant are a delight, and Witherspoon, taking on a period-appropriate physique, manages some affecting moments. Waltz is modestly interesting playing another sadist in what will be a long line of them. The adorable Holbrook is underused and misused.
But Lawrence emphasizes the ugliness of it all, rarely letting grace notes creep into the film. The violence is extreme and unflinching, the sense of injustice palpable. And worst of all, the film takes forever to get to the love triangle that we know, from the moment it is introduced, will lead to disaster.
As a vehicle for “Twilight” hearthrob Pattinson, this doesn’t come off either, as the Oscar winner Witherspoon seems downright unimpressed with his charms. And Waltz lacks the charisma to suggest this titanic figure who wills this world to life with his personality and his fists.
It’s not a total washout, and its unromantic view of circus life, especially back then, is probably close to the mark. But “Water for Elephants” amounts to another story that is far more alive on the page than it is on the screen.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook
Credits: Directed by Francis Lawrence, written by Richard LaGravense, based on the Sara Gruen novel. Produced by Gil Netter, Erwin Stoff, Andrew R. Tennenbaum. A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 1:57.