No doubt determined to avoid the Mark Hamill/Luke Skywalker syndrome of being remembered for one role and one role only, Twilight poster boy Robert Pattinson trades vampires and werewolves for animals and acrobats in director Francis Lawrence’s travelling circus themed romantic drama Water for Elephants.
Presumably following the advice of his publicist and financial advisor, Pattinson again stars in an adaptation of a bestselling novel themed around a torrid love triangle and brings to it the swag of lost puppy dog looks he perfected in his previous incarnations as a pasty-faced blood quaffer.
His love interest this time around is played by Oscar winner Reece Witherspoon, who, 14 years older than Twlight’s Kristen Stewart, was cast to offset Pattinson’s youthful banality with a splash of maturity and cred. Same goes and then some for Christoph Waltz — another Oscar winner — who plays the third side of the triangle: a snarling circus ringmaster who doesn’t take kindly to a handsome Johnny-come-lately with eyes for his wife.
Water for Elephants is bookended with the same tired framing device as epics such as Titanic and Saving Private Ryan. An elderly citizen sees something or goes somewhere that jogs their memory, which prompts the story to jump backwards to a tumultuous period until the obligatory return of the oldie at the end, who will wipe away a tear and presumably cark it sometime shortly after the credits roll.
In present day a well dressed geezer rocks up after hours and unannounced to a circus and babbles to the only person who will listen about his experiences in the 1930’s in the lead-up to ‘the great Benzini circus disaster.’ All those years ago Jacob (Pattinson) was left alone and homeless after his parents died in a car crash. He jumps onboard a midnight train going en-ee-where and discovers it is owned and occupied by the Benzini travelling circus. After some tense negotiations with the mean entrepreneurial ringmaster August (Waltz) Jacob lands a job as a vet and goes gah gah for August’s glamorous wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
It’s not hard to describe the pitch that green-lit Water for Elephants: a story of forbidden love set in the spectacular world of travelling circuses. How appropriate, then, that the cast come away looking like a bunch of clowns. Pattinson fares barely any better here than in Twilight; Witherspoon, a pretty face with a disconcertedly slim bod generates absolutely no gravitas; and Waltz, who ought to know better, gets his game on but looks bad by association.
The best performance comes from a nimble elephant named Rosie, but the biggest elephant in this film is the film itself. Water for Elephants is clunky, awfully conspicuous dramatically and as subtle as a herd of you-know-whats stomping through a monastery. One all too short scene in which the circus animals fight back is a highlight; presumably they too were miffed by the quality of the human performances.
Despite Lawrence’s evocative albeit glossy recreation of 1930’s America, replete with hobos, boxcars, goons and ol’ time family values, the film’s false promises to be about interesting things — circus disasters, fiery romances etc — make it an all hat and no cowboy affair.
The next time Robert Pattinson endeavours to expand his acting horizons, he might like to consider something a little bit different, a little bit challenging. At least Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe had the temerity to romp naked on a horse, as the UK’s Daily Mail so eloquently put it.
Water for Elephant’s Australian theatrical release date: May 12, 2011.