Water for Elephants: Circus Tale, Starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson

What has happened to the gifted and charming Reese Witherspoon?  She has mostly made bad choices and/or giving poor performances, after winning the Best Actress Oscar for “Walk the Line.”

In the new romantic drama, “Water for Elephants,” based on the acclaimed bestseller of the same title, she plays Marlena, a star performer in a circus of a bygone era.

Richard LaGravenese, who has scripted (and helmed) several good pictures, does more or less a decent job in compressing Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel, which offers a detailed account of circus life circa 1931, when the story is set.

Nonetheless, as scripted here, and especially as directed, the movie is a major disappointment for two main reasons.  It fails to evoke an authentic setting for its central love affair.  Despite working with an ace cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, you never get a real sense of circus life, with all its alluring and appalling elements.  Nor do you get a feel of the broader socio-political context of the Great Depression.

Second, there is no chemistry between Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, (still best known for the Twilight” film series), who is probably (mis) cast as veterinary school student.

Admittedly, the tale has bizarre aspects—what brings the couple together is their compassion for a special elephant.  But a more seasoned director could have made a more compelling picture.

In theory, this is a classic triangle story, with Jacob, Marlena’s threatening husband, as an obstacle to the romance. But, curiously, there is stronger rapport between Marlena and her husband (played by Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds” fame) than between her and Pattinson.

Too bad, circus movies have usually a built-in appeal, due to their eccentric locale and colorful personalities.  And Hollywood has been quite successful in making schmaltzy melodramas about such milieus, including Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth,” which won the 1952 Best Picture Oscar, and Carol Reed’s “Trapeze,” starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida as the woman who comes between them.

“Water for Elephants” should have been an enjoyable, sentimental romantic drama, something like “The Notebook.”   In fact, Ryan Gosling, the star of that picture, should have been a better partner for Witherspoon than Pattinson, who doesn’t generate any heat, or any eroticism here.

Most of the film’s faults are probably a result of the direction, which is heavy-handed and static, with a pacing that calls even greater attention to the various shortcomings.   In other words, with the exception of a few good moments, “Water for Elephants” is a dull experience to sit through.

At its current running time, the movie overextends its welcome by at least 20 minutes or so.