I don’t know Robert Pattinson personally, but I’m willing to bet that his current goal in life is to get people to stop asking if his skin sparkles in the sunlight. Having been catapulted to international fame by the scary-popular Twilight franchise (did you see that felt “Bella’s womb” someone was selling on Etsy?), Pattinson has a lot to prove moving into the rest of his career—namely, that he’s not Edward Cullen, the brooding, 104-year-old vampire who specializes in heavy-lidded staring and (spoiler alert!) knocking up sullen human teenagers.
Enter Water for Elephants, a lush, romantic period piece (based on a 2006 novel of the same name) set at a traveling circus in 1931. There are no monsters (unless you count the carnies), and Pattinson plays a grief-stricken, lovesick veterinarian who heals puncture wounds rather than making them. It would seem to offer the perfect escape hatch from his tween pigeonhole. But, sadly, it doesn’t stretch Pattinson much. It doesn’t stretch anyone much. It’s pretty but plodding, with a plot that’s predictable even if you haven’t read the book.
At the opening of the film, a circus manager, Charlie (Paul Schneider) finds a watery-eyed old man (Hal Holbrook) staring up at the big-top tent, seemingly lost. He brings the man into his office in order to call the local nursing home, only to learn that his visitor, Jacob Jankowski, worked in circuses as a young man, even spending a year with the Benzini Brothers, a traveling company that folded, apparently, after one of the most infamous circus disasters of all time. “Would you mind telling me about your experiences?” Charlie asks (he has to, or there would be no movie). And lo, the old man begins to speak, and his voice fades into that of Pattinson, the young Jacob.
In the first five minutes of the flashback, Jacob loses his Polish immigrant parents in a car wreck just as he is preparing to take his final exam to graduate from Cornell’s school of veterinary science. He discovers that his father left him homeless and penniless thanks to naïve business practices. So he leaves town and jumps aboard a passing train that just happens to house the Benzini Brothers crew.
The next day, while shoveling manure to earn his keep, Jacob happens upon the luminous Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the show’s star performer, grooming her thoroughbred horses. He uses his vet training to suss out that the headlining horse has a serious illness, which gets him in good with the bipolar circus master, August (Christoph Waltz)—that is, until he shoots the horse to put it out of its incurable misery. But rather than “red-lighting” Jacob (throwing him off the moving train), August decides to put him in charge of a new acquisition, an elephant named Rosie. Before long, Jacob is falling in love with both Rosie and Marlena, but he only has sex with one. I’ll let you guess which.
What Water for Elephants lacks in depth (“I don’t know if I picked that train or that train picked me,” Jacob murmurs in a voice-over), it more than makes up for in cinematography—the world of the Benzini Brothers is at once filthy and glamorous, frightening and captivating. Witherspoon certainly looks the part of a delicate Prohibition-era ingénue, but her toothy, helpless charm is nothing we haven’t seen before (ditto Waltz’ dangerously unstable villain).
As for Pattinson, he’s a talented actor who tries hard (and looks great on camera), but this role relies heavily on the hangdog stares of longing that he’s all but trademarked. Luckily, he’s good at them; those stares lend the Jacob-Marlena-August love triangle a thrumming, sensual energy. And while the film’s ending may be foreseeable, that doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying. Like any circus worth its peanuts, it’s adept at masking artifice with spectacle.