Anytime a beloved book is adapted for the screen, there are going to be some grumblings about the casting (enraged The Hunger Games fans, I’m talkin’ to you).
And so it was when I first heard about the cast of Water for Elephants, everyone’s favorite book of 2006.
Pretty-boy bloodsucker Robert Pattinson as Jacob, the ardent young veterinary student who hops a train and accidentally joins a traveling circus? No way! Ryan Gosling would be perfect in that role.
Snub-nosed all-American cutie Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, the graceful horse trainer and acrobat who enchants him? But Marion Cotillard was clearly Marlena.
The only cast member I sort of got behind was Inglorious Basterd’s Christoph Waltz as August, the circus’s sadistic ringmaster (I’d envisioned Daniel Day Lewis when I read the book, but as second choices go, Waltz is not too shabby).
Oh, how I’d love to report that my reservations were unfounded. . .
Pattinson is hardly a disaster, but he doesn't do much more than find his mark and look good in his Depression-era togs. To add insult to injury, turns out that away from his Twilight broodiness, he’s a bit of a nervous giggler—hardly the stuff romantic fantasies are made from.
Witherspoon acquits herself better—she is surprisingly graceful atop the horses and elephant (although she’s made no Natalie-Portman-esque claims that she did her own stunts)—but she brings little mystery to the role. A gifted comedic actress, Witherspoon is not able to suggest enough of Marlena’s sex appeal or steely strength.
It’s no surprise that Waltz fares best. August is a vicious narcissist, prone to indulgent bouts of self-pity, and desperate declarations of love. Juicy stuff—and the Austrian actor is more than happy to steal the show (along with the titular elephant, that is).
The character of Jacob as an old man is greatly scaled down from the book—another shame. Hal Holbrook, with his moist blue eyes and that beautifully contoured mug of his, plays him to perfection. (Choosing to have Pattinson narrate the story instead of Holbrook is just one of the film’s many missteps.)
The casting is clearly the biggest drawback, but director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), doesn’t help his own cause. His work is competent but uninspired. The film should feel like a glimpse at a seedy but magical lost world. It should be exotic, almost otherworldly. Instead, you can practically see the key grips and lighting guys lurking off set: “Horses, fat lady, lions—take your places!”