I'll not be the first reviewer to point this out, I'm sure, but Water for Elephants' framing narrative - which has a dear old soul escape the clutches of his care home long enough to tell a skeptical young man all about this one time he ran away with the circus - is for all intents and purposes a direct lift from James Cameron's Titanic. And that very much sets the scene for Francis Lawrence's latest piece of popcorn-fodder; very much a move towards the good and true and pure after the gaudy grime of Constantine and I Am Legend... yet Water for Elephants too has its darkness.
Least, it does if you squint a bit.
Based on Sara Gruen's pop-lit smash hit - a gritter, greyer thing by far, as I understand it - Water for Elephants is the story of the best days of one Jacob Jankowski's life: a Polish veterinary student who, when his parents pass in a tragic car wreck - leaving Jacob with nothing but his half-completed Ivy League education - jumps the first train heading anywhere but here and never looks back. The train, as it happens, turns out to belong to the Benzini Brothers' Circus, upon which discovery Jacob begs a job from the ringleader, August Rozenbluth. August, in a bid to outdo his great rivals the Wringling Brothers, is only too happy to offer Jacob temporary employment tending the animals.
Which is all very well, of course, and fodder for a fair to fine narrative right there, I don't doubt, but only when Jacob lays eyes on the lovely Marlena, August's wife and star attraction - for she too has a way with the animals - does Water for Elephants reveal its true intent: a forbidden love story set against the backdrop, rather than the fact, of a circus on its last legs in the deeply depressed 30s.
This is where Water for Elephants began to go pear-shaped, for me. I just did not - could not, no matter how hard I tried - buy into the romance between Twilight's Robert Pattinson as, ironically, Jacob, and Reese Witherspoon (last little-seen in one of 2010's biggest flops) as Marlena. What chemistry there is between the leads, if there is truly any at all, seems more an accident of mad science than any natural or even smartly manufactured reaction. At least they look the part - as most everything does in this lavishly produced and ornately set-dressed adaptation - but neither Pattinson nor Witherspoon feel as if they're at home in these particular roles... and so much of Water for Elephants hinges on the viewer coming to care for their characters, which come across as little more than barely-contained impulses in bodily form, that if one cannot easily get on side, then one is likely to find oneself utterly unconvinced by much of what follows.
That said, I was not in fact "utterly unconvinced" by Water for Elephants; only the central characters left me feeling cold and old. Far more worthwhile, as both actor and character and character actor, was Inglorious Basterds' Colonel Hans Landa: Christopher Waltz as August, who has loved Marlena ever since he lifted her up from nothing, and who, as an intelligent and essentially decent man, hires Jacob as much for decent dinnertime conversation as for his, uh... elephant-whispering skills. To my surprise my sympathies were with August first and foremost, until of course the broad-strokes script from Richard LaGravenese - that would be he of The Bridges of Madison County and The Fisher King - requires that August morph into the Bad Nasty Man of the piece, the better to rationalise away Jacob and Marlena's illicit affair.
I was not, needless to say, best pleased with this abrupt transformation, nor at all surprised by it. In fact I'd be interested to hear how August is portrayed in the original novel: is he as clear-cut a monster in the end, or essentially a decent human being, maddened by a broken heart? In any event, in Francis Lawrence's lamentably uncomplicated adaptation, August's development takes a predictable nose-dive towards the melodramatic, even the monstrous, in the last act.
No other actor really gets a look-in on Water for Elephants, I'm afraid, though I'd have looked back on this film rather more fondly if it had had time for dearly-beloved supporting characters like Camel and Charlie and Kinko the Clown, as I gather the book does. Instead, Lawrence introduces the lot, only to abandon them somewhere around the outer circle of the big top he builds evidently for no other reason than to set the stage for a tepid love triangle.
Water for Elephants, then, is schmaltzy, saccharine-sweet, sentimental storytelling, laser-focused where a little range would have done it the world of good, widening its scope and cloying tone a great deal... and I dare say it could have made more of the encroaching darkness about it, rather than merely allude in its direction from time to time. One senses sharp edges here and there - carried over from the book if I'm not mistaken - but I fear former MTV-man Francis Lawrence is more interested in smoothing them over to make way for his shiny happy people to hold hands than for a moment exploring these untold depths. Water for Elephants could have been a far greater thing than the attractive but empty sideshow it is, ultimately: a family-friendly period romance with added tassels and the occasional animal.
Speaking of which, there is at least one undeniable attraction to this film. The hell with the dude what was in the Twilight flicks, Reese Witherspoon and even my man Christopher Waltz: if you're going to watch Water for Elephants for any reason - and it's alright, really; all my objections aside, it makes for a perfectly pleasant evening's entertainment - watch it for a star-making performance from Rosie... the elephant!