Water for Elephants is a circus movie needing more sawdust under its fingernails. It's tough to imagine a prettier movie set during the Great Depression, or lovelier images of a big top rising and a train belching smoke on moonlit nights. Even the grime is artfully faked.
Francis Lawrence's film is one for the books, or more accurately readers of Sara Gruen's novel about a three-ring romance and various shades of cruelty. Water for Elephants probably looks exactly as they imagined, which ensures their swooning and cringing at all the right moments.
It's a good movie, just not as great as I'd hoped after hearing how cinematic Gruen's prose felt on her pages. The period and themes had me expecting something grittier, more in line with circus movies of the 1930s when Water for Elephants occurs. Movies with tough dames and dodgers in white-heat love, and danger just an open cage or train wreck away.
Only one central actor's performance in Water for Elephants would fly in the '30s: Christoph Waltz's mercurial turn as ringmaster August Rosenbluth, played with the silky intensity that earned him an Oscar for Inglourious Basterds. Waltz is a master of insinuated menace, with even his softest comments suggesting hard actions soon. He could go toe to toe with any heavy from Hollywood's golden era.
On the other hand, Reese Witherspoon can do a lot of things as an actor but playing a damaged-goods Depression era dame isn't one of them. She's physically perfect to play August's wife and star attraction Marlena, with platinum hair and the gumption to climb atop an elephant.
Yet something about Witherspoon's performance is too contemporary; she doesn't appear to have lived the life Marlena quietly endures. It would seem that Marlena would not only have picked up Jean Harlow's hairdo but also her brassy snap in delivering lines. The same anachronism extends to Twilight star Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, the circus' new veterinarian tempting Marlena. They're beautiful together but so 21st century.
Water for Elephants is a handsome period production from start to finish, filmed by Rodrigo Prieto in moody silhouettes and burnished colors. Jack Fisk's production design in tight quarters is superb, especially August's seedy-greedy stateroom contrasted with the roustabouts' box car living quarters. Lawrence relishes his chance to classically raise a big top with synchronized sledgehammers pounding and canvas unfurling.
No discussion of Water for Elephants is complete without mentioning its pachyderm scene stealer Rosie, the catalyst for the film's most compelling drama. Rosie is well trained and apparently bilingual since she responds to English and Polish. It's a performance entirely built on body language of course and darned if this animal doesn't seem to be making an actor's choices of how to move. I smell Oscar, or maybe just the need for a big shovel.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.