The screen adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling historical novel Water For Elephants has this in its favor: It’s the perfect release for an Easter weekend, when families nationwide will be looking for inoffensive, moderately engaging entertainment to distract them for a few hours without unduly upsetting anyone. There’s nothing challenging about this polished Depression-era romance, but while it comes wrapped in a hearty dose of sentimentality and uplift, it rarely tugs at the heartstrings hard enough to become cloying. It isn’t a film the whole family can love, but it’s a film the whole family can stomach.
Twilight mainstay Robert Pattinson stars as a would-be veterinarian who stumbles into a job at a small traveling circus after a family disaster derails his college career at the very moment his final exam begins. (His professors couldn’t have waited a mere two hours to tell him the bad news, thus allowing him to graduate? Not in a story this devoted to broad strokes and contrived barriers.) At the circus, he falls for pretty star attraction Reese Witherspoon, the wife of mercurial, abusive ringmaster Christoph Waltz. The circus is on the brink of financial ruin, and Pattinson’s new livelihood is periodically in danger, until Waltz acquires an elephant named Rosie from a defunct competing circus. Then Witherspoon and Pattinson bond over their affection for the animal, as Waltz becomes progressively more suspicious and violent, which puts Pattinson’s life in danger as well.
Gruen’s novel was constructed around a single narrative surprise, but there are no such shocks in the film version, helmed by former music-video director Francis Lawrence (who also directed Constantine and I Am Legend). It’s a tastefully managed, passionless melodrama, full of brooding looks and reasonably sweet moments, but typified by a scantly characterized central couple who bring no sense of engagement to their relationship. Witherspoon comes across as sad and wary at best, while Pattinson’s terrible summation of his hopes for their future—“You’re a beautiful woman, you deserve a beautiful life”—veers beyond callow into laughable. Only Waltz (the deserving Best Supporting Actor winner for 2009’s Inglourious Basterds) brings some verve to his performance, and even he winds up limited by the plodding story, which mechanically brings two pretty people together, traumatizes them, then holds them apart. Water For Elephants respects its source material to the point of lacking its own identity or any sense of commitment, but at least its mild, innocuous charms assure it won’t spoil the holiday weekend by being divisive or difficult.