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"Water For Elephants" is as conventional, conservative and safe a film as you can imagine. I haven't read the book, but it couldn't have been this watered-down and timid, could it? Every time "Water For Elephants" has the opportunity to go down a thornier, scarier, more challenging road, it skits away, shivering, to higher ground. I am not expecting "Water For Elephants" to start investigating genocide in Darfur; this is a pretty, glossy old-school romance movie, after all. But its characters are never real people, instead just plot points willing to morph and shift positions whenever the storyline needs them to. There's an interesting movie in here somewhere. "Water For Elephants" doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to go digging for it.
2. The film has the same basic structure as "Titanic." Hal Holbrook plays an old man -- and I mean old; according to my math, at the start of the film, he's about 103 years old -- who wanders onto a circus staging ground and begins to tell the tale of his life. It turns out that Holbrook once looked like Robert Pattinson -- just play along, OK? -- and he was a promising veterinary student whose parents were killed just as he was about to graduate. Lost and alone during the Depression, he stumbles across a traveling circus and, because he looks like Robert Pattinson, is instantly taken in and cared for by everyone involved. (There are three types of participants in this traveling circus: the rich owners, the plebian freakshow underlings, and Robert Pattinson.) Like any down-on-his-luck kid who happens to have matinee idol looks -- a Faustian genetic bargain, considering he'll end up Hal Holbrook -- he finds himself ensnared in the goings-on of the circus' tortured ringmaster (Christoph Waltz) and his beautiful, abused wife (Reese Witherspoon). Also involved in all this is an elephant who speaks Polish.
3. Those words I used there, "ensnared," "abused," they're stronger words than the film is willing to use. (Powerful verbs, those.) The wife isn't really abused, because that would require scenes that push the film in darker directions than it wants to go. Pattison isn't really ensnared, because the film never develops enough dramatic momentum to make us feel the stakes are all that particularly high. The ringmaster is indicative of this problem. He is, alternately, pathetic, joyful, friendly, angry, destructive, sentimental, and murderous at various intervals throughout the film, without any logical consistency or progression. He is simply whatever the film needs him to be at that individual moment. Of course, his possession of character traits, however varying, still make him the most compelling character in the film; at least he has something to do.
4. Most of that's thanks to Waltz, who, after "Inglourious Basterds," is making a habit of infusing empty characters with humanity that didn't exist from inception. I still don't know if Waltz can play anything other than the painfully insecure monster who is more evil than he thinks he is but mostly just wants to fit in, somewhere, but those are the roles he keeps being handed, and he keeps knocking them out of the park. But all right: I think we need to talk about Robert Pattinson. I will confess to having never watched the "Twillight" films, but from what I've been told, Pattinson is thought to possess more acting chops than Taylor Lautner, his lycanthrope counterpart. If this is true, I can only assume that Lautner spends most of the "Twilight" films tripping over the set decorations. Pattinson is handsome and game (picking a David Cronenberg film as your first post-"Twilight: Breaking Down" project is nothing if not ambitious), and he certainly looks the part of a movie star, but he appears to have but one facial expression. I am not sure what this expression is; I just know it involves looking off into the distance, just off-screen. Occasionally he will quiver his right eyebrow. Casting him opposite an actress as skilled as Witherspoon is just being cruel. Even slumming in an underwritten role, there isn't a moment you buy Witherspoon being able to spend more than five minutes with this lunkhead before rolling her eyes and searching for a more productive use of her time, like solving a Rubik's Cube or something. I'm sorry: Pattinson seems to mean well, and career-wise, he's tackling challenging projects. You have to respect that. I'm just not sure he's up to the challenge.
5. By the time "Water For Elephants" reaches its somehow meandering-but-still-overwrought conclusion, the film has long since worn out its welcome. (Mild spoiler here, but I will give it credit for a different resolution of its sloppy plot than I was expecting.) It's just a movie that doesn't feel like trying hard. It sets up a love triangle, but then does nothing with it other than add an elephant who understands Polish. (The movie never explains why the elephant understands Polish, and for that I am grateful.) It has no sense of the wonder of the circus, the apparent mental disease its ringmaster suffers from, or the romance at its center, one it constructs by throwing two attractive people in a frame together and seeing what happens. "Water For Elephants" is not awful. It's lushly constructed, moderately sincere and never offensive. But it's going through the motions. This movie doesn't have half the imagination of even the most subpar circus and, all told, I think it even has fewer elephants.