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By Elias Savada | April 21, 2011

While the film version of Sara Gruen’s best-selling 2006 novel aims for prestige, there’s something up there on the screen that is telling us—not necessarily in a bad way—date flick! And it’s pleasant enough eye candy: for the guys there’s near-Platinum blonde Reese Witherspoon, while the gals get to ogle at a glitter-free Robert Pattinson, who continues to impress in non-“Twilight” roles (and might confuse his Team Edward fans as his character here is called Jacob). Win, win.

Music video and feature (“Constantine,” “I Am Legend”) director Francis Lawrence tackles his first period picture with nice atmospheric effect, using a script by Richard LaGravanese, who tackled similar sentimental themes in his adaptation of another best-selling book “The Bridges of Madison County.” The screenwriter often gets attached to high octane literary adaptations (Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Nicholas Evans’ “The Horse Whisperer”), and while Lawrence is no great director (yet), he does manage, for most of the film, to convey a compelling story that makes such novels popular film fodder. Mexico-born cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“Amores Perros,“Brokeback Mountain“) and production designer Jack Fisk capture the look and heart of the era, of heartland America entranced by the sideshow, and the grit and grift of the day.

Framed as a flashback, the story begins when an elderly man wanders, after hours, onto the grounds of the Circus Vargas, a small operation run by Charlie O’Brien III (Paul Schneider). Believing the man, Jacob Jankowsky (86-year-old Hal Holbrook, a blessed American institution), has lost his bearings from the nearby Greenhaven Nursing Home, Charlie soon learns his guest is actually an old circus roustabout, one who spins an entrancing story that takes us back to an era before television, iPads, and any other electronic gizmos, when people wrote letters, not email, and the Great Depression was bearing down on America.

“Water for Elephants” is a cautionary romance set in the Benzini Bros. Circus, run by the autocratic August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz, continuing his association with off-kilter characters that began with his Award-winning performance as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds” and migrated to the villain in this year’s dud “The Green Hornet.”). His wife is the petite and pretty Marlena (Witherspoon), the star performer, a horseback rider. Down-on-his-luck Jacob (Pattinson), the son of Polish immigrants, whose world changed as he was about to take his final veterinary exam at the prestigious Cornell University (Go Big Red!), instead finds himself walking the rail lines, unsure of his future and his next meal. When he hops aboard a train, it turns out to be the home of the traveling carnival where he finds camaraderie among the laborers, a more-than-mild attraction with the circus owner’s spouse, and enchantment in the magic that entranced a nation back in the day.

I really liked the first sequence where the circus lands at its latest destination, pounds the stakes into the ground, and erects the canvas tent, lifted by multi-nominated James Newton Howard’s original score. Soon gymnasts, clowns, trapezists, and other brightly costumed performers traipse around the big top under the forceful, occasionally brutal, hand of August, the show’s ringmaster. It was quite enjoyable for someone like myself who fondly remembers attending numerous Ringling Brothers shows as a kid and ranks the 1932 film “Freaks,” similarly set in a depression era circus, as one of the most influential horror films of all time.

Of course, the film is also about an elephant, doh. Rosie is a 4 1/2 ton, 52-year-old cast-off that August buys on lay-away, hoping the beast can bring in the crowds that have evaporated of late. The beast (played by a Hollywood veteran) has a pleasant enough temperament, but her new owner only wants immediate results, which means a mean-looking instrument called the bull hook. Jacob’s experience with animals borders on lame tenderness, which would easily get him fired by Donald Trump on “The Apprentice,” but August won’t stand for the lad’s laid back demeanor, even if Jacob discovers how to talk with the animal. The owner’s brutal beatings of the newcomers, be it out of one recipient’s inability to learn new tricks or the other one’s perceived flirtations with Rosie’s rider, are cold-blooded (this is what Christoph Waltz does best), but no animals—or humans— were hurt in the making of this film.

As the tension escalates, sides are taken until the disaster we know is coming (from Holbrook’s comments at the start of the film) arrives with a frenzy. I felt the film ended with a slight wimp, but otherwise enjoyed the show.

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