The marriage of circus and cinema took place in the very early days, fittingly enough as film, the new form of entertainment, sought to capitalize on one of the oldest ones. Some of the first memorable movies about the big top are Chaplin’s “The Circus” in 1928 and Tod Browning’s unforgettable “Freaks” in 1932. From then on, the list of circus movies is unending, about pathetic carnival sideshows in Fellini’s “La Strada” or extravaganzas like Cecil B. de Mille’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” (this last earning a reputation as worse Academy Award winner ever). There are the Marx Brothers, there’s “Trapeze,” we even have Elvis in “Roustabout,” for crying out loud. Some of these films are spectacular or inspired, many corny, hammy, sentimental, and likable. None of these qualifiers apply to “Water for Elephants” a strangely inert vehicle for cardboard cutout characters who sleepwalk through a tired and predictable story.
Readers of the best-selling 2006 novel by Sarah Gruen are familiar with the bareback rider (here Reese Witherspoon, in pale and expressionless china doll mode), her brutal husband August, played by Christoph Waltz, and the failed vet who runs away to join the circus (Twilight” Robert Pattinson, channeling a young Brendan Fraser). Events unfold as expected in an overlong production that tries hard to be entertaining but fails on all counts. We know we’re in the midst of the great depression as we’re told of circus hands thrown off the train when there’s no money to pay them. We know the young couple is in love because they tell us so. We know that August is violent through his horrendous treatment of Rosie the elephant. We know the circus is magical because the public laughs and applauds the lavish numbers too briefly shown. But none of this touches our hearts or registers in any way.
The one draw, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, was also a let-down. His performance is a perfect film-school study of the importance of balance and chemistry between director and actor. Where Tarantino played this tremendous actor like a Stradivarius in “Inglourious Basterds,” in “Water for Elephants” Waltz screeches like an out-of-tune fiddle. Neither his violence, nor his rants, nor his charm are at all credible.
Hal Holbrook who brackets beginning and end is marvelous as always but perhaps not reason enough to waste two-plus perfectly good hours that would have been put to better use by going to an actual circus for real magic and emotion.