In this adaptation of Sara Gruen's book-club favorite Water for Elephants
heartthrob Pattinson stretches to play a character with a pulse – but just barely. Orphaned in the film's opening minutes and suddenly cash-poor in 1930s New York, Pattinson's Jacob hops a train in the dead of night only to discover he's caught a ride with a traveling circus. A former veterinary student, Jacob's animal expertise quickly makes him indispensable to ringmaster-with-rage-issues August (Waltz, in a colorless do-over of his Inglourious Basterds
' charismatic diablo). Witherspoon plays August's star attraction and wife Marlena, and her Jean Harlow platinum-blond bob out-vibrants everything else in this consistently murky picture (all the more curious considering cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has done such lush work for Ang Lee and Alejandro González Iñárritu). No one would mistake the Benzini Bros. Circus for the Greatest Show on Earth – the Depression-era traveling troupe is a junker compared to the gold-standard Ringling Bros. – but still, a film has to try pretty hard to render lions and tigers and trapeze artists so uniformly underwhelming. And that's just the sideshow entertainment: The love triangle that determines Water for Elephants
' dark trajectory is just as joyless and wanly dramatized.