- - Thursday, April 21, 2011

Based on Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel of the same name, “Water for Elephants” is a vapid romantic drama with all the symptoms of a poorly executed Hollywood adaptation.

The movie opens with the elderly Jacob Jankowski (Hal Halbrook), who escapes from his nursing home in hopes of attending a local circus performance. Although he misses the show, he ends up befriending the circus manager and reminiscing about a terrible circus accident he witnessed as a young man — but not before asking his new friend for something strong to drink, something “that isn’t apple juice.” Brace yourself for two hours of corn-fed cliches.

Jacob transports us back to the Great Depression, when he is a young Polish immigrant (played by tween heartthrob Robert Pattinson) studying veterinary medicine at Cornell University. Before Jacob is able to finish his degree, a car accident kills both his parents, and he quickly finds himself without a home or a job. After accidentally hopping a train full of carnies, he ends up working for the Benzini Brothers, a shady circus troupe led by the opportunistic and cruel August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). Although he starts out shoveling manure, his knowledge of veterinary medicine is quickly put to use, and before long, he’s responsible for the show’s newest act, an elephant named Rosie.

Jacob immediately falls in love with August’s beautiful wife, Marlene (Reese Witherspoon). As characters, Jacob and Marlene serve little function beyond being predictable foils to August’s violent, unpredictable behavior. Despite much screen time devoted to these two navigating each other’s mixed messages and physical advances, the chemistry between Jacob and Marlene feels uninspired and falls flat. Marlene lacks the depth that made Miss Witherspoon’s June Carter such a pleasure to watch in “Walk the Line.”

Director Francis Lawrence creates a visually convincing world of back-alley speakeasies and seedy train cars as backdrop for the dramatic foreground. Unfortunately, the film’s dialogue — bordering at times on the embarrassingly banal — lacks comparable depth. The one commendable exception is August’s surprising, even delightful, response to Jacob’s confession that he never graduated from Cornell and isn’t a licensed veterinarian.

A surprising plot twist about halfway through the movie re-energizes the story, but the renewed momentum is squandered by a bizarre, over-the-top ending.

Much as in his previous blockbuster, “I Am Legend,” Mr. Lawrence conjures a vibrant visual setting that he’s unable to populate with commensurately vital characters and dialogue. Despite the considerable talents of Miss Witherspoon and Mr. Waltz, we’re left with a big void under this big top.

★½

TITLE: “Water for Elephants”

CREDITS: Directed by Francis Lawrence; written by Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Sara Gruen (novel)

RATING: PG-13, mostly for violence and sex

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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