Mercury News (San Jose, CA) reviews Water for Elephants:
By Randy Myers
For a long time now, romantics have been hankering for Hollywood to make more old-school love stories. This spring, with “Jane Eyre” and the new “Water for Elephants,” their wishes are coming true.
Based on Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel, the atmospheric “Water for Elephants” puts us under the Big Top and into the tangled lives of three complex characters. The tradtionally-told tale centers on Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), a Depression-era veterinary school student who hooks up with the Benzini Bros. Circus after his parents’ death. This uncertain lad with a killer smile catches the crazy eye of August (Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds”), a tyrannical circus owner married to the circus’ star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
Depressingly resigned to her fate, Marlena takes to flirting with the new cutie-pie because a) he’s hot and b) he possesses many virtues (unlike her husband), including being kind to all creatures great and small.
Jacob and Marlena thoroughly fall for each other when Rosie the elephant (played with great depth — seriously — by Tai, a veteran animal performer) arrives, only to get beaten by August. Rosie becomes the circus’ — and for a while, the film’s — scene stealer.
As for the human attraction, we all know it will come with deadly consequences, foreshadowed at the start with a scene in which an elderly Jacob (played by a rheumy-eyed Hal Holbrook) goes into Gloria Stuart (“Titanic”) mode — wistfully reflecting on his younger days.
All of this easily could have turned Hallmark-card sappy. But while there are a couple lines of dialogue that might make your eyes roll, you probably won’t mind. After all most of us have said a variation of those words.
Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese deserves a commendation for showing restraint and grace in transferring Gruen’s prose to the screen. (Not too shocking since he worked magic bringing the truly treacly “The Bridges of Madison County” to screen.) Here, he adds a few bold strokes — melding two characters into one and tinkering with other elements — and the changes are for the better.
“Elephants” holds surprises in other way too, from casting to directing.
Pattinson sinks his teeth into the part and shows he has the acting chops to carry a more adult-themed drama. He makes Jacob idealistic, principled and sexy. The “Twilight” sensation’s scenes with Witherspoon are sensitively done.
Speaking of Witherspoon, she’s been in desperate need of a good film. After her last dud “How Do You Know,” she rebounds with a sweet and tough part of a troubled circus star who looks like she stepped out of a Hitchcock movie. Waltz makes your skin crawl as a creep who delights in humiliating others and beating animals.
The biggest surprise, though, is director Francis Lawrence. Who would have thought that the same guy who gave us Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” and Keanu Reeves’ “Constantine” could make such a heartfelt romance? Yet, his visual sense and ability to imbue danger in key scenes are fitting for the material and add some edge and spark to what amounts to very conventional storytelling.
“Elephants” might not perform any new genre tricks, but that’s OK. After all, a good story is a good story — be it on the page or up on the screen.