The Great Depression and the circus are both vividly visceral topics for the cinema. So much has been done and can be done to represent degradation and hope through these channels. Water for Elephants, an earnest but toothless film version of a sappy bestseller, fails at both.
Francis Lawrence went from promising music video maven to an exciting force in features with Constantine and I Am Legend, two genre powerhouses of annihilation. His third film is gorgeous to look at but cold to the touch. The plot is pure old school B-movie, but the screenplay is so bland that the clash of what we see and hear is jolting. Robert Pattinson is good, but doesn't seem a perfect fit for the part, and Reese Witherspoon, try as she might, can't make us believe in her character or the love story, though she looks fantastic and has fun with it. This is a failure on several levels, not just her fault. Though well directed, Lawrence can't get over the stumbling block of a story, which uses stereotypes in a warhorse story but doesn't do anything clever or emotional with them.
The real star of the film is Academy award winner Christoph Waltz, who is sublime and relishes every moment as the villainous ringmaster who comes between these two dim lovers. Rodrigo Prieto masterfully guides this shipwreck with a technicolor shine, lighting within and without the greatest show on earth. And James Newton Howard erupts with another sweepingly felt score that makes the proceedings more bearable.
With this uneven fusion of nostalgic syrup and chick lit/chick flick, Lawrence has unleashed a fascinating circus disaster, his weakest motion picture, but noteworthy as the lesser work of a great director.