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‘Water for Elephants’

Hunky Pattinson finally gets something to be broody about

by Kaori Shoji

What is it about Robert Pattinson that makes him slightly annoying? Despite his 18-carat movie-star status built on his vampire role in the “Twilight” series, despite the rumor that he’s slated as the next Brad Pitt (er, really?) and has the lanky, boyish charm to back it up, Pattinson remains several notches below Total Heartthrob status.

My guess is that this brooding lad fairly oozes with first-world angst (relationship problems, identity problems, anger at the high price of organic chicken, etc.), which, at this point in history, kind of tests your patience. I mean, what’s he got to complain about?

So “Water for Elephants comes as a surprise, because Pattinson in the lead role is, to put it bluntly, excellent. Director Francis Lawrence (“I am Legend”) deploys Pattinson’s particular privileged-but-unhappy aura to full advantage, and the movie reaps heaps of benefits from his skittishness, his subtle note of unreliability and that calculated lopsided grin. Plus, he takes a punch in the face, which is more than a little gratifying to witness. Win-win, all round.

“Water for Elephants” is based on the 2006 novel by Sara Gruen, and director Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (“P.S. I Love You”) succeed in transporting if not the whole of Gruen’s heavily romantic and chaotic world, then certainly a good chunk of its vintage charm undercut by early-20th-century seediness and brutality.

The story is set during the Great Depression and features a traveling circus as its stage. In both book and movie, violence plus deprivation comprise an ever-present phantom that stalks the characters relentlessly. The circus we see here isn’t about the sleek glamour and wondrous technique of the Cirque de Soleil (Gruen actually based her research on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). Behind the stage, the performers are knee-deep in manure and dust, flies settle everywhere and the animals — to coin a popular 20th-century phrase — are treated like animals, with whips and muzzles galore.

The humans fare better, but only a little. In the movie, you’ll see a lot of maimed or injured performers who get thrown out once they’re no longer useful, usually out of train cars in the dead of night (the practice is an old one, known as “redlighting”) to avoid payment and compensation. Some of these scenes are mindful of Federico Fellini’s classic “La Strada,” which also featured a traveling circus: There’s a lot of cruelty going on, pent-up rage and an ungovernable thirst for revenge.

Which brings us to the best thing going on in “Water for Elephants” — Christoph Waltz as the circus owner, August. Waltz got his break in “Inglourious Basterds,” went out of view for a bit, but resurfaces here as a brilliant villain, masterfully blending charisma, lust and nasty insanity. (Waltz is also in “Carnage, reviewed on this page.)

August is definitely in the right profession: He peddles grand illusion to the masses while keeping his possessions (performers and animals alike) in a vicelike grip of angry brutality. He’s often a cliché, but a compelling one. And the way he seems to exult in inflicting pain echoes circus strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) in “La Strada.”

Reese Witherspoon is August’s long-suffering wife, Marlena, though she’s a lot less naive and much more of a hottie than Zampanò’s Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina). It stands completely to reason (would Hollywood have it any other way?) that Pattinson’s character would fall hard and fast for her, which ticks off August to no end. The tragedy is that August takes out a lot of his frustration on the circus animals, mostly Rosie the Elephant, which understands Polish and is probably the most wondrous creature on the premises.

“Water for Elephants” takes you to a world where people are really people — crazy bad, desperate and frenzied, unruly and soiled. In other words, brimming with genuine humanity.

Pattinson’s character, Jacob, first appears as a ninetysomething retiree in a senior home, waxing nostalgic for the days when times were bad but human beings could “feel the blood in their veins, feel that they were alive.” Jacob is recalling his days in the circus, where he had been hired to look after the animals as a destitute ex-veterinary student. Old Jacob closes his eyes and he can remember the sweat and manure, the cacophony of animal noises and human voices, the misery of pining for a married woman. And he declares the modern world a sham.

Jacob is on to something. Back in his time, the bad stuff was in-your-face and laid out for the world to see. These days, we learn about the muck and tragedies via digital screens that can be turned on or off at will. Such as last year’s news that Ringling Bros. had to pay a fine for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Talk about timing.