Early in Water for Elephants, teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson strolls through the construction of a grandiose circus. We see the feverish effort of so many setting the stage, raising the tent, and meticulously doing their part in creating the grand illusion that is the Benzini Brothers Circus. Yet he just strolls on through, looking around as if, say, a shopping mall seemed slightly more busy than usual for a Tuesday afternoon, or a small student group was doing a demonstration on a street corner. No glow of wonder, no sense of appreciation, nothing but Robert Pattinson being Robert Pattinson. Look at all the tremendous work that’s being done around him only for him to wander through the motions.
Jacob Jankowsky (Pattinson) is a college dropout—he went to a little school called Cornell, maybe you’ve heard of it?—who after the death of his parents and the seizure of his home, hops aboard the first train that would have him. When aboard and aggressively greeted by a grimy crew of carnival workers, he’s given the choice to leave or stay and work a few days with the traveling troupe of nobodies and sideshows. Jankowsky does what any near-graduate of Cornell with looks to kill would—forgoes any other potential employers and joins the circus on a whim. Jacob’s background in veterinary studies quickly lands him a steady position as the circus’ vet after he confronts ringleader and manager August (Cristoph Waltz) about the health of the main attraction, a beautiful white horse trained and loved by the vibrant ray of innocence, August’s wife Marlene (Reese Witherspoon).
As Jacob finds a new family among his peers and a new forbidden love in Marlene, he’s tested by the explosively insecure August, a man whose drive for success and lack of results leads to acts of head-turning violence towards animals and chest-beating displays of murderous power among workers. Waltz, already an Oscar-winner for his unforgettable role as Hanz Landa in Inglourious Basterds, should get his second nod for this performance. Whereas Hanz was—for lack of better words—a bizarrely fun, perfectly cartoonish villain, Waltz’s handling of August is just as well-crafted. He doesn’t shift perfectly from French to English to German to Italian, no, but the performance doesn’t lie in the language, it’s in how it’s conveyed.
Christoph Waltz is storytelling. He performs with such passion, regret, humility, and pride but never crosses the line of too much. After August has brutally stabbed a defenseless, chained elephant, we follow Jacob—equipped with the very same weapon used against the beautiful beast—as he enters the ringleader’s room. We’re bloodthirsty. We want that sharp edge to cut into August’s thick skull the way reason and compassion couldn’t. Yet when Waltz turns to Jacob and says, “she won’t talk to me” regarding his disgusted wife, he admits to being wrong. Even he is disgusted in himself. He quivers and tries to make excuses, but stops and accepts his mistakes and offers to amend them in any way possible. August breaks down. So does Jacob, who lowers his weapon. So do we. We give in, because we’re watching a master hypnotist at work. Get this man another award—forget that The Green Hornet ever happened.
Director Francis Lawrence (whose I Am Legend introduced action-star Will Smith to acting-star Will Smith) has done a fine job of telling an old-fashioned story with a dash of everything—romance, action, betrayal, Ken Foree, elephants—but it doesn’t seem like much can help Pattinson at this stage. Granted, the young actor needs time to grow, but in a period when expressions range from “frustrated because I can’t see what’s in the distance” to “sad because I can’t see what’s in the distance,” does that growth need to be put to celluloid? Wonder and awe of Waltz, of the larger-than-life animals, and of the gorgeous cinematography are punctuated by shot after shot of Pattinson blankly “emoting,” with watery eyes and bruised cheeks as cues standing in for acting.
In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowsky runs off and aimlessly-but-successfully joins the circus with few applicable skills and stays for the love of a woman. In real life, Robert Pattinson has done the same. He has ran off to Hollywood with few acting chops, just the fanatical adoration by millions of Twilight fans, and stays around for hope that the box office results keep on coming in. With nothing outside of Pattinson’s two mega-franchises making above-average returns or wielding much critical praise, the young actor could benefit from using the considerably long road ahead of him to figure out how he can construct a circus of his own and not take leisure walks through those of others.