Christoph Waltz completes a trifecta of classic movie villains in “Water for Elephants,” an adaptation of the best-selling novel about a Depression-era veterinary student who runs away and joins the circus.
After playing a ruthless, cultured Nazi in “Inglourious Basterds” and an insecure mob boss in “The Green Hornet,” the Austrian actor delivers another memorable performance as August, the volatile owner of the second-rate Benzini Bros. Circus.
August, a composite of two characters in the book, is a sadist who can torture an elephant, abuse his beautiful wife and throw carny workers off a train to save money. As Waltz portrays him, however, he’s also a man riddled with guilt and capable of kindness.
He’s the highlight of Francis Lawrence’s handsome, lethargic tearjerker, which moves as slowly as Rosie, the circus’s star elephant who performs amazing tricks when instructed in Polish.
The movie effectively evokes gritty 1931 circus life, where roustabouts, animal trainers, acrobats and clowns travel from town to town on an overcrowded train and work for peanuts (not the kind that elephants eat.)
The weakness is the central love story: Runaway student Jacob (Robert Pattinson) falls for August’s wife and star attraction Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, sparkling in sequined costumes). It falters mostly because Pattinson is a charisma- challenged actor who’s having a hard time escaping from his “Twilight” vampire persona.
Richard LaGravanese’s script constructs the tale as a flashback, told to a young circus worker by an elderly Jacob (Hal Holbrook).
When his parents are killed in a car accident, a distraught Jacob leaves Cornell University just before graduation and hops a train that turns out to be the home of the Benzini circus. He starts out shoveling manure, but is quickly promoted to circus vet when August learns about his academic training.
Jacob is repelled by August’s cruel treatment of Rosie -- relax, animal lovers, it’s all done with special effects -- and tensions escalate when the owner learns about the young man’s infatuation with his wife. This leads to a violent showdown in which Rosie uses her giant trunk to teach August that elephants have long memories.
“Water for Elephants” is a three-ring circus with two marquee acts: a 9,000-pound elephant who understands Polish and a skinny Austrian who knows how to terrify us.
“Water for Elephants,” from 20th Century Fox, opens today across the U.S. Rating: **1/2
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What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.