It's depression era America, and Jacob Jankowski (TWILIGHT heartthrob Robert Pattison) is a handsome young man whose future is derailed by tragedy. He drops out of veterinary college, hops a train, and ends up joining the Benzini Brother's Circus where he does his best to take care of the animals under less than optimal conditions. The job puts Jacob in close proximity to the show's lovely star Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). The two become attracted to each other, but try to keep their feelings in check. And with good reason. Marlena is married to the owner of the circus, the alternately charming and cruel August (Christoph Waltz), a man known to have those who displease him thrown off a moving train.
A dangerous love triangle in an exotic setting would seem to be a good start for an enjoyable old-fashioned melodrama. But as they say, the Devil is in the details. Or in this case, the lack of details. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is all plot with no flavor, which is inexcusable given the setting. A circus in the thirties should have all kinds of interesting supporting characters, and indeed the Benzini Brothers troupe would seem to have its share. None of them get a chance to really register with us, though, even the ones we're apparently supposed to care about. The movie is too busy trying in vain to give its central love story some heft to be bothered.
Director Francis Lawrence also seems to have forgotten the first rule of good storytelling: show, don't tell. We're told in narration that the depression is going on, and the hardships the troupe suffers as a result, but we never actually see it. Even more damaging, we rarely get to see August's dark side. For most of the film, we're only told about his worst misdeeds in narration. What we see are the moments when things are going well and the crew is apparently happy with their boss. We do get to watch August mistreating the animals, and eventually Lawrence realizes he has have August do something to earn our wrath or the ending won't work. But for most of the film, Waltz plays the character as flawed but likable. That just doesn't jibe with what we've been told, and it undercuts August's power as the movie's villain.
At least August has some defining characteristics. Pattison's Jacob is a blank slate whose only personality trait is that he's kind to animals. Witherspoon's Marlena doesn't fare much better, and both actors are at the mercy of screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's banal dialogue and Lawrence's pedestrian direction.
So far I've done my best to assess the film on its own merits without comparing it to the novel by Sara Gruen that it was based on. I am not one of those people who subscribe to the notion that “the book is always better,” and I can easily name you a dozen films that I think are at least as good as the book, if not better, and without necessarily being faithful to the source material. In this case, the book definitely is better than the movie. A lot better. 2 out of 4 stars.