Star attractions contribute to the allure of the circus, and three of them provide the best moments in Francis Lawrence's adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel of the same title. The touching performances of Hal Holbrook ("Into the Wild"), Robert Pattinson ("Twilight" series) and a large pachyderm called Rosie steal the most spectacular show on earth away from the more flamboyant wonders, oddities and marvels on display in the romantic drama. They offer an emotional truth, even when the movie's luridness goes over the big top.
The story starts in the here and now. Holbrook plays Jacob Jankowski, a frail but sharp-witted man who intended to spend the day at the circus. But he missed the show. A kindly Circus Vargas manager (Paul Schneider of television's "Parks and Recreation") gets an earful while trying to make arrangements to return Jacob to his despised nursing home. With relatively little screen time, Holbrook makes an indelible impression -- and provides a sad commentary about adult children who add to the indignities of old age.
Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's ("The Horse Whisperer") well-constructed frame structure flashes back to 1931 with Jacob (Pattinson) as a young Cornell veterinary science student. After receiving tragic news, he hops aboard a train in the darkness of the night and awakens to the world of the struggling Benzini Brothers travelling circus. The film's first act is flawless, as a bemused and wide-eyed Jacob admires the lions and tigers and other animals that he loves, while becoming acquainted with the "kinkers" or performers and learning to work the audience "rubes." The spectacle dazzles him, but he soon learns about the tawdry reality behind the sequined illusion.
The Depression-era setting will resonate with today's audiences. Times are tough. Cash-strapped Americans lose their homes, scrabble for jobs and hope that someone can spare them a dime. But August (Christoph Waltz of "Inglourious Basterds"), the ruthless ringmaster and manager of the circus troupe, quaffs champagne with his blonde-bombshell wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) while having workmen thrown off the moving train so he doesn't have to pay them. The critique of the circus class system and capitalism in general adds tension to the forbidden love story.
With her Jean Harlow glamour and gentleness with the animals, Reese Witherspoon embodies the vulnerable object of desire who can turn up the star wattage at will -- whether performing as the main attraction in the circus ring or partying at a speakeasy. Jacob can't take his eyes off of her, and Pattinson makes you believe that his character is completely infatuated with the married woman. Yet Witherspoon seems miscast, as though someone with the right look has been plunked down in the wrong time and place. She doesn't exude the dangerous sexuality of the femme fatale.
Parallels are drawn between August's outbursts of violence towards his wife and towards Rosie, the endearing and lemonade-loving elephant that Jacob handles. Waltz has become the contemporary version of the man you love to hate. His acting becomes more cartoonish as the movie veers into gaudy -- and sometimes laughable -- melodrama.
Despite the film's unevenness, the director pushes enough sentimental buttons to make much of the movie work. Although not suited for ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages, "Water for Elephants" presents plenty to please the crowds.