He almost can't believe she's real. The young veterinarian Jacob (Robert Pattinson) confesses this to the audience in voiceover, as we stare through his eyes at Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) reclining across her ailing horse. (He's talking about Marlena but that horse is a vision, too.) Marlena's equine slumber is the strangely serene finale to what is otherwise a typically busy circus act. In Jacob's defense, she is quite a vision; Reese's hair is nearly Harlow blonde, her innate starpower reflects as much light as her shimmery costume, and the horse ain't bad either. Marlena is almost musical, really, riding into the tent on the ripple of black and white stallions. It almost makes you wish that Water For Elephants were a musical. It thrives on these heightened moments, the ones that feel half imagined rather than remembered, and both musicals and epic period romances, a related endangered species, need these to induce the swooning.
Water for Elephants is adapted from the bestseller of the same name which introduces us to a nursing home escapee Jacob who tells a stranger in the circus business his life story. He ran away to the circus when tragedy struck and signed on as their vet, quickly proving indispensable. Naturally the young ivy league dropout falls for the star performer (Marlena) who is stuck in an abusive relationship with her older ringmaster husband. A new addition to the circus, an elephant named Rosie, strains their already tense triangular working relationship.
The unmistakable mistake within the the adaptation by Richard Lagravenese is its timidity. It's almost as if the screenwriter and possibly the director were afraid of breaking the spell that the #1 bestseller had on its audience. It's frustrating really that they were so shy. "Water For Elephants" in literary form, wasn't anything like a masterpiece to coax gingerly with reverence toward the screen. What it had going for it was the incredible images it conjured up; as books go it was practically already a movie. It needed a team that would corral it from big top to big screen with a merciless showman's precision, tossing its less wieldly bits off the train at the first opportunity. It needed to be an August rather than a Jacob. Take the framing device, for instance. It's awkward but enough in the book but justifies its presence somewhat with a good deal of meatiness. Truncated to screen form it's virtually character-free, the definition of inelegant structure. Why not toss it out altogether? (Sorry Hal Holbrook and Paul Schneider but you didn't have characters to play anyway!). Young Jacob's opening act tragedy is also entirely mangled by truncation. Few things are less interesting than waiting for a movie to get where you know it's going and few things are more exciting than entering a movie mid scene and running to catch up. Better to have kicked off with a despondent young man hopping aboard a moving train. Who is he? Why is someone this well educated and richly dressed acting like a hobo? Let key dialogue moments but mostly the skill of the actors (you hired pricey ones) suggest the back story. With best sellers the audience will fill in more than you should ever tell.
Still, the movie version has a few moments just as magical as Marlena's horse act most of them springing from the colorful alien milieu. The 1930 traveling circus is very well executed by the A list production team including production designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood), costume designer Jacqueline West (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain). On occasion the performances get to be the show, courtesy mostly of Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). His blazingly confident command of the camera is impossible to miss as are his efforts to elevate the archetypal Svengali character, by leaning hard into August's vulnerable moments, the aftermath of his rage or control. A fine pachyderm actor by the name of Tai is also wonderful as "Rosie".
Water For Elephants is smart enough to understand that it's closer to a romantic quadrangle (3/4ths human, 1/4th other) than a typical romantic epic. It wouldn't work without the aggressive push of August or the mysterious pull of Rosie but the young lovers are still crucial. In some ways Pattinson, a far more limited actor than Witherspoon, is better at the romantic grand gesture of this particular vehicle because he's not at all strong with specificity. (Though to be fair the book had this problem too, Jacob refusing to prove as dimensional as the supporting players.) Perhaps it's the cost of being the storyteller? Witherspoon acquits herself well, reminding us why she's a star, but her relationship with Waltz is so ably defined by both actors and involves more tenderness than you might expect from a movie portrayal of an abusive marriage so her turn towards her young savior feels slightly unfocused; It's arguably a sketch where bold romantic strokes might have helped. But in both the circus and at the movies, eye candy is the star attraction. Jacob and Marlena look great together in their romantic clinches, all sharp angled faces struggling to make room for soft feeling.