WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, based on the novel of the same name by Sara Gruen, is a grand romantic daydream of a movie. Suffused as it is with a bitter edge of melancholy of lost souls scrabbling for a happiness that they believe to be right around the corner, it is saved from the excesses of melodrama with counter-intuitively spare writing and performances that play from the gut.
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is on track for his own dream of happiness when it all disappears with the turn of a doorknob as hes taking his finals at Cornell to become a veterinarian. Its 1931, and suddenly without family, home, or resources, including his license to practice, he decides to do what so many other economically displaced people have done, ride the rails. Fate or chance has him hop on the train carrying the Barzini Brothers Circus. Running away from the reality of the Great Depression, he finds himself in a world of cynical illusion, where the only thing that counts is talent, ticket sales to stay afloat, and currying favor with August (Christoph Waltz), the ringmaster and absolute master of all who travel with his circus. Working his way up from roustabout, where he shovels manure and bops the heads of those trying to see the show for free, he talks his way into becoming the circus vet. Talking his way in is one thing, making a secure place for himself in a circus that, like the country as a whole, is having money problems is another matter entirely. In this alien land, Jacob is confronted with wild animals, wilder hoochie-coochie dancers, and Augusts ethereally beautiful wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon at her loveliest yet). Bonding with her over their mutual love and respect for animals is easy. Dealing with the more tender feelings they provoke in one another is not. Dealing with the mercurial August is almost impossible, one minute generous and loving, the next mercilessly beating his star attraction, an aging elephant named Rosie.
The fate of the circus itself is revealed almost at once. The specifics of what led up to it make up the flashback told by the elderly Jacob (Hal Holbrook) to the circus guy who finds him wandering around the grounds. The tale of how the Barzini Brothers Circus ended is the stuff of legend in circus circles, and depicted as it is here with saturated colors, sweeping tracking shots, and a richly melodic score that shies away firmly from the histrionic while embracing a full measure of passion, it has that feel throughout. It adds an astute sense of the heroic wonder Jacob experiences, surprised by the magic of having been rescued from oblivion by the strange world of circus life. The savagery beneath the sequins, emotional and physical, of Augusts control of his circus and all in it, is always present, creating the tension necessary to keep the mood taut and the audience engaged. Performances find the truth in the artifice of circus life, and of the movies. Witherspoon in particular is tough without being hard. Waltz, as in his Oscar-winning turn in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, makes evil fascinating and not a little seductive, while Pattinson, freed from the white pancake and clunking dialogue of the undead, brings a sweet innocence to the part, one that makes the symbolism of Rosies trunk curling up to his chin as he talks with Marlena disingenuous, almost sweet, rather than vulgar and obvious. And there is no getting around that the elephant playing Rosie holds her own in moments of both pathos and pure joy.
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS seduces the audience by appealing to emotion rather than logic. Irony has no place in the sentimentality tucked neatly into the suspense. This is an old-fashioned adventure romance without apologies.