It doesn’t say much for a movie when the leading man is upstaged by a pachyderm named Rosie. This is no Disney filmed-in-the-wild adventure; this is the highly anticipated film adaptation of Sara Gruen’s phenomenal bestseller, which I think everyone read but me.
It must be a time-honored part of the formula to begin these kinds of stories with an old man reminiscing. This time it’s Hal Holbrook, who, on a rainy night with a warming shot of whiskey to loosen his lips, begins the story of Jake Jankowski, a young man (played by Robert Pattinson) whose life is derailed when his parents are killed in a car crash. Just shy of finishing his studies as a veterinarian at Cornell and now left with nothing, Jake joins the Benzini Brothers circus.
Smack in the middle of the Great Depression, times are tough for the traveling circus where Jake performs menial tasks and meets all kinds of typical circus folk like the grungy roustabouts, the freaky side show performers and the bawdy chorines who clearly appreciate his good looks. The owner, August (Christoph Waltz), is an enigma — sometimes a jokester who clearly loves what he does and sometimes an abusive rage-aholic with a nasty temper. His wife, the lovely Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is the circus’s headliner with her equestrian skills.
Jake’s appearance sets in motion the love triangle that will eventually erupt into tragedy, but perhaps the bigger tragedy is the casting of Pattinson and Witherspoon, who together have zero chemistry. Witherspoon, more of a girl next door than a femme fatale, does an adequate job of conveying her ambivalence regarding her challenging marriage and looks the part, but Pattinson is not so lucky.
This movie was touted as his chance to prove he can evolve into mature leading roles beyond his work in the “Twilight” films. He certainly has the looks, but if this movie is any indication, that may be all. The prosaic actor has only one facial expression, brooding, and thank goodness screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has given him plenty to brood about. The script is appropriately long on blank staring off into space and short on dialogue, sort of like a Sylvester Stallone movie without machine guns. But the biggest problem is a lack of cohesiveness, giving the feeling that key scenes were lifted from the book and basted together. Sure, the story moves along, but with the lumbering lurch of its star performer, rather than the assuredness of a solid storyline.
Besides the elephant, the real star power here is generated by Waltz, who succeeds in making August a sympathetic character despite his monstrous mood swings and sadistic nature as he reveals the character’s remorse for his own behavior. Waltz, who won an Oscar as Nazi Hans Landa in Quentin Tarentino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” is still largely unknown to American audiences, but this follow up proves beyond a doubt he is no one-hit wonder. On screen, he is hypnotic, stealing every scene he’s in, making Pattinson’s deficits as an actor painfully obvious.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, this is a beautifully filmed movie with production values that outshine the actual production. Adapting best sellers is risky business, but this is one that begged to be a movie, even if the final product is disappointing. It’s lucky that I, unlike an elephant, can soon forget it.