It's tempting to refer to Richard LaGravenese as the Doctor Dolittle of screenwriters, as the man who successfully brought Nick Evans' novel The Horse Whisperer to movie houses has now been tasked to do likewise with the adaptation of Sara Gruen's mammoth bestseller, Water for Elephants. But to be fair, LaGravenese is more than just an animal act, as he's known for other lofty cinematic translations like A Little Princess, The Bridges of Madison County and the underrated Beloved. Water for Elephants follows suit: It's an adaptation that manages to be tasteful, mature, and even on occasion insightful. But that can only take a movie so far when there's no one around to constantly fan those flames of literary respect into something inherently, vibrantly cinematic.
Robert Pattinson, best known for Twilight, and Reese Witherspoon, not especially known for Twilight (but in a Trivial Pursuit aside, she did star alongside Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon in a 1998 movie with that name), respectively play Jacob and Marlena. He's an orphaned vet-school dropout who winds up landing a gig looking after the animals (including a soulful pachyderm) at a ramshackle circus; she's the big top's main attraction, as well as the wife of the quick-tempered owner, August (Christoph Waltz). August is already sadistic enough, but when he notices an attraction growing between his wife and this newcomer, his rage becomes even more pronounced, resulting in a jealous fit that threatens to destroy not only the lovebirds but the circus itself.
Waltz's ringleader is almost as heinous as his Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (for which he won an Oscar), but the actor's excellent performance keeps his character from deteriorating into a buffoonish villain. He far outclasses the two stars, whose lack of chemistry undermines the love story that rests at the film's center. Visually, the picture is exquisite — the art direction by Terrence Malick regular Jack Fisk and camerawork by Brokeback Mountain cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto immerse us so thoroughly in the circus world that we almost smell the sawdust (though thankfully not the elephant dung) — but emotionally, it proves to be as airy and insubstantial as cotton candy.