For all I know, the actor Robert Pattinson may be hell on wheels onstage, where he's done Shakespeare and Cole Porter. But thus far in his film career, he's mostly demonstrated uncommonly lovely bones and a thorough mastery of looking tenderly down upon the desolate damsels nestled in his arms. No one has yet asked him to do any serious screen acting — with or without sparkly sprinkles on the preternaturally pale skin that, along with his apparent reluctance to play celebrity, has proved so alluring to American teenage girls.
Water for Elephants, a Depression-era romantic drama adapted by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County) from the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen, asks little more of Pattinson than did the Twilight franchise, unless you count the ability to charm an elderly pachyderm into doing his bidding with a few words from the Polish phrasebook. Beyond that, it's the same old anguished stares into the middle distance, garnished with the occasional enigmatic grimace and a puzzling reluctance to jump the bones of Reese Witherspoon.
Which seems a pity given that the movie, which plays a bit like a young-adult version of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? gets the plot out of the house and on the road to action-adventure with the brisk efficiency one would expect from director Francis Lawrence, who made the very busy I Am Legend. Pattinson plays a veterinary student who, deprived of a solid future by the sudden death of his loving parents, takes to riding the rails. With remarkable speed given the times, Jacob finds work caring for sick animals in a traveling circus headed by August (Christoph Waltz), a manipulative bully whose adored wife (Witherspoon) is the heavily sequined, transparently unhappy star attraction of the floundering enterprise.
Bonding over a dying horse and its endearing successor, Rosie the Elephant, Witherspoon's Marlena and Pattinson's Jacob fall in love, as they must. That they make an implausible pair has less to do with the age gap between the two actors — she's hardly cougar material yet, but Witherspoon has a decade on her young co-star — than with the fact that perky and mopey don't mix.
Witherspoon has done all kinds of intelligent work since her notable debut in The Man in the Moon, and she may yet make some imaginative choices when middle age puts paid to her ingenue looks. At 35, though, she's still stranded somewhere between the hyperachieving class president she played in Election (her finest role to date) and the lesser variations on Legally Blonde of recent years. Witherspoon makes an incongruously squeaky Marlena, and it doesn't help that Pattinson is about as ardently expressive as a log of wood trying to pass itself off as James Dean. Hal Holbrook has more fun in his bookend cameos, playing Jacob as a rheumy-eyed old man telling his story.
The only one bringing serious energy to the proceedings is Waltz, doing a slightly watered-down version of the uber-Nazi he played in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. And even he's trying to squeeze idiosyncrasy out of a Svengali who's as off-the-rack as the rest of the ensemble — which includes (sigh) an angry dwarf, an oversexed high-wire artist with designs on Jacob, a kindly old drunk and the usual broken-nosed goons, who in this instance specialize in throwing obsolete employees off the circus train.
The expertly staged climax, in which all manner of caged creatures, human and animal, cut loose from their bonds, comes as a relief from the endless inert scenes of forbidden romance. Rosie is good fun as far as cute elephants go, and it's nice, I suppose, that when the going gets rough she can go rogue in the service of gallantry. But it made me squirm that a movie with a love-conquers-all message includes the injunction that we must be kind to animals not because they are living beings, but because they can be induced by pricey Hollywood wranglers to perform tricks — like chugging back whiskey-laced lemonade or flirting with hunky movie stars — that remake them in our image.