Robert Pattinson in “Water for Elephants” – Our review

By Sean O’Connell The world – OK, “Twilight” fans – will flock to theaters this weekend to see if Robert Pattinson has a career once the vamps-and-wolves franchise draws to a close. But if tragic love triangles aren’t your thing, Hollywood has a handful if independents, as well as the new Tyler Perry to satisfy all tastes. But we have to start our look toward the weekend with:

Water for Elephants (**1/2 out of 4)
Francis Lawrence’s handsome adaptation of Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel is a circus-set period romance where the main attraction – a doomed love triangle propping up the Big Top – pales in comparison to the sideshows and secondary acts coloring the fringe.

Lawrence appears more interested in the machinations of the Depression-era circus, and all of the hard work that went into staging the greatest show on Earth, than he is in the predictable romance played out between a veterinary student (Robert Pattinson), the circus’ star performer (Reese Witherspoon) and her short-tempered ringmaster husband (Christoph Waltz).

As a result, “Water for Elephants” engages whenever the stock love story takes a backseat to the hazing rituals of circus life, the threat of red lighting (the act of throwing performers off a moving train to avoid having to pay them for their work), and the majesty of the circus’ spectacular animal performances.

This might be the first time I’ve ever written this in a review, but the elephant is the best thing in “Water for Elephants.” Pattinson may be popular, and Witherspoon and Waltz may have Oscars on their shelves, but all three are upstaged by Rosie, the trained elephant who steals “Water” away from her Hollywood co-stars. It’s saying something that Pattinson shows more passion and adoration for the pachyderm than he does for poor Witherspoon. The elephant’s also a better-written character than Waltz’s evil August, who’s really just a different shade of the villain the actor routinely plays since Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”

These shallow characterizations, and some obvious plot coincidences, belong to Gruen. But Lawrence makes enough inspired decisions to save “Water” from its pitfalls. He and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese streamline their source novel so that the film mirrors “Titanic’s” structure, with an older character (Hal Holbrook) reminiscing about his dream-like past. And “Water” maintains the elegance of one’s memories thanks to a beautiful James Newton Howard score and Rodrigo Prieto’s lovely cinematography. While not the “greatest show on Earth,” as some circus’ claim, “Water for Elephants” should please the novel’s dedicated fans, as well as those who appreciate history, animal compassion, and beautiful Hollywood production design that calls to mind the industry’s golden age.

Also opening:
“Cougar Hunting” (** out of 4 stars) has nothing to do with ABC’s “Cougar Town” and everything to do with such crude coming-of-age comedies as “American Pie,” with sex-crazed friends Tyler (Matt Prokop), Tom (Jareb Dauplaise), and Dick (Randy Wayne) ditching their teen-girl counterparts and “hunting” older women in Aspen, Colo. If you can get past the steady stream of vulgarity, “Hunting” can be funny but never figures out how to be sweet. It’s all bone, with no cuddle.

“Of Gods and Men” (*** out of 4 stars), meanwhile, tackles the topic of religious persecution with a modern twist, as monks stationed atop a North African mountain must decide whether to flee or fight when Islamic terrorists invade. As a contrast between individual resolve and the power of group-think, this one fascinates … though it’s deliberate pace might not be for everyone.

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