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Review: 'Water for Elephants' is a three-ring bore

The Associated Press, Wednesday, April 20, 2011, 2:53pm (PDT)

There are times you should just keep on ignoring the elephant in the room.

For instance, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson's "Water for Elephants." The adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-selling novel about romance and intrigue in a Depression-era circus plods along at a pachyderm's pace.

Witherspoon and Pattinson are a three-ring snooze-fest together, bringing little passion to a love story supposedly so fiery, it blows the roof off the big top.

The movie's lone star attraction is Christoph Waltz, who won an Academy Award as a gleefully psychotic Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds" and here delivers another wicked performance as Witherspoon's hubby, the cruel, jealous circus ringleader.

As sadists go, this guy's an amateur next to Waltz's "Basterds" bad boy, but the actor is so talented, he commands every moment that he's on screen, further highlighting how dull fellow Oscar winner Witherspoon and "Twilight" heartthrob Pattinson are.

Director Francis Lawrence ("Constantine," "I Am Legend") throttles down from action flicks and sputters through this treacly love triangle (or love quadrangle, if you throw in the elephant).

Like the book, the movie begins with its hero, Jacob, reflecting back on his life from old age, except the situation's been changed from natural ruminations in a nursing home to a clumsy, "Titanic"-style framing story.

Old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) spins the tale to an eager young circus proprietor (Paul Schneider), the script by Richard LaGravenese burdened with far too much narration, much of it stating the obvious. There's a Depression on; we don't need voice-overs telling us that times are tough.

As the action shifts back to 1931, young Jacob (Pattinson) is sent a-wandering after tragedy wrecks his life and dashes his plans to follow his dad into the veterinary profession.

Penniless, Jacob hops a train that happens to carry the Benzini Bros. Circus, whose star is horseback rider Marlena (Witherspoon), wife of the troupe's autocratic owner, August (Waltz).

Demonstrating his knowledge of animals, Jacob quickly is hired as the circus veterinarian and becomes trainer for Rosie, an elephant that August acquires as his wife's new four-legged co-star.

Half snake charmer, half brute, August alternately mentors and terrorizes Jacob, whom he inexplicably throws into Marlena's company again and again. Could he really expect Marlena and Jacob to do anything but fall in love?

The romance is utterly predictable and uninvolving, with barely a spark igniting between Witherspoon and Pattinson.

Waltz thankfully takes the two-dimensional villain crafted by the filmmakers and elevates August to something approaching a full-blooded, loathsome tyrant.

He's so good at being bad that August's physical abuse of the elephant, while watered-down for the screen, looks truly savage. Watching Waltz beat Rosie, hatred for the elephant and hatred for the world seem to rise off his body like steam (don't fret about the elephant, though; the crew used visual effects to create the beating scenes, and the movie comes with the American Humane Association seal of approval that no animals were harmed).

As with the prologue, the filmmakers shift details from the book around trying to make them more cinematic. Rather than heightening the drama, they create a story of implausible convenience, this event following that circumstance following that revelation, just when the characters need them.

Period details, costumes and production design all are impressive, but "Water for Elephants" shortchanges the circus atmosphere. We get only the barest sense of carny life, and the acts themselves are seen in such fragmentary quick cuts that there's no sense of wonder to it, no clue as to why the rubes come running when the circus rolls into town.

The movie is a long, long way from the greatest show on Earth; at best, it might be the greatest show in your local theater, assuming it's the only film playing there. The more you ignore it, the sooner it will pull up stakes and lumber away to the elephant graveyard.

"Water for Elephants," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. Running time: 121 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.

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