What’s cooler these days than the circus? Life under the big top inspired a trio of exhibits at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art this spring and a mega-show at the Shelburne Museum last fall. But it’s not the modern, cleaned-up, politically correct circus that fascinates hipsters and arty types: It’s the bad old circus of American lore, complete with caged animals, sideshow freaks, burlesque shows, offensive clowns and ugly accidents. Some might argue that those aspects of the traditional circus have moved to reality television. Still, everything’s more fun with elephants and sequins.
Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants banked on the allure of a romance set in a struggling Depression-era circus — and became a best seller. Now it’s a star-studded film that offers a middling helping of spectacle but is far too clean and soft-focus to do justice to its subject. Think of it as “Hallmark Does the Circus.” Or Titanic without the ship sinking.
Like James Cameron’s blockbuster, Elephants uses the framing device of an old person telling a long-buried story. Hal Holbrook wanders into a circus and stays to talk about his stint with the notorious traveling Benzini Brothers, whereupon, in flashback, he implausibly becomes Robert Pattinson.
Pattinson is Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student who quits school after a family tragedy and runs away to join the circus — accidentally. “I don’t know if I picked that train,” he says in voice-over, of the Benzini Bros. transport he hopped on, “but something told me it picked me.”
That line is typical of the screenplay, adapted from Gruen’s book by Richard LaGravenese, who seems to be working in his P.S. I Love You vein. The clichés keep coming when Jacob meets Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a blond equestrian whose husband, August (Christoph Waltz), the head trainer, runs the circus with a charming smile and an iron hand. The two pretty people bond over Rosie, a mistreated elephant, while August glowers and meditates on the best comeuppance for the young almost-vet.
Such is the power of acting that viewers may find themselves seeing August’s point of view. As our villain points out repeatedly, running a circus in the Depression isn’t all about striking poses and petting nice animals — it’s a dirty business, and someone has to wield the whip. Waltz is basically reprising the soft-shoe-sadist performance that won him an Oscar for Inglourious Basterds, but at least his character seems, well, alive.
Witherspoon embodies the era’s shabby glamour in costumes by Jacqueline West, and she drapes herself gorgeously over a white horse. But she doesn’t appear particularly at home in the languishing character, or with Pattinson — who, for his part, brings little beyond his signature pallor. In stills, these lovers look lovely, but when they move and speak, the passion vanishes.
Good chemistry between the leads can light a fire under a bland movie romance. But The Notebook this is not. Worse, director Francis Lawrence, who created memorable visuals in I Am Legend, gives us only a few scenes under the big top, where a circus movie belongs. Old-fashioned circuses and moral uplift just don’t mix well — and that’s the elephant in the screening room.