Be at ease. No audience members will be harmed during showings of "Water for Elephants." Not by the movie anyway. It's actually rather good, despite a brief penultimate slog through romantic goop. And that's because the movie from Sara Gruen's best seller seems to remember the old joke about the lifetime circus roustabout.
You know, the joke about the ancient, well-pickled fellow who's been cleaning cages and shoveling large animal droppings for 50 years. And his old friend asks Fred one day while Fred is in midshovel, "Hey Fred, you've been shoveling this every day of your life for 50 years. You've managed to sock a little dough away and you've got grown kids who'd like to see you more. Why don't you just retire?"
Whereupon Fred finishes unloading what was in his shovel and answers, "WHAT? And leave show business?"
That's the glory of Francis Lawrence's "Water for Elephants," a plush, well-filmed Depression circus romance that gets to the filth and even sordidness of life in the circus in relatively short order. A traumatized Cornell veterinary student (Robert Pattinson) finds that his parents have died in an accident and left him destitute just as he was about to take his final exams.
In aimless despair and without prospects in a world that's out of work, he somehow joins the circus as a roustabout and is immediately put to work shoveling a lot of "show business."
The movie does it so that the audience doesn't have to.
This circus is not a happy place. Whatever glamour anyone could possibly see in it is based on Depression-era privation and is piled atop a mountain of very funky stuff. In a profession where the Ringling Brothers rule, this circus is a hardluck struggling wannabe, barely kept afloat in the New York/Pennsylvania circuit by a sadistic owner (Christoph Waltz) who thinks nothing of brutalizing men and animals both.
He abuses every animal he can, almost any way he can. He feeds his big jungle cats rotten food infested with maggots. And when there's not enough money in the till to meet the payroll, he solves the problem by getting his thugs and goons to throw his own workers off the train in the dead of night before they get to the next town.
If they live, they live. If they die from the fall, even better. Either way, they're off the payroll -- none of which, of course, stops him from having expensive champagne and candlelight black-tie dinners with his wife (Reese Witherspoon), the circus' bareback rider and major attraction.
And there's your entire story -- a love triangle of the vicious sadist, his unhappy, golden-haired, milk-skinned wife and the idealistic veterinary student who becomes her confidante and savior, as well as the savior of the circus' animals.
Which eventually includes Rosie, a 50-year-old sweetheart of an elephant with the potential to be the circus' saving big attraction.
At this point, every 11-year-old in the audience knows how this love triangle-plus-one is going to end: for the sadist, the beauty, the nice guy -- and the mistreated elephant.
The actual goopy love stuff isn't much when the movie gets to it, but the resolution we all know is coming is handled quite deftly by Lawrence (director of "I Am Legend," "Constantine," TV's "Kings.")
James Newton Howard's music is feloniously syrupy, but it's offset by the sumptuous cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto.
And, are you ready, the love triangle is acted splendidly by Witherspoon, Waltz and, yes, Pattinson as the young vet. It's going to surprise people who've only seen Pattinson in "Twilight" foolishness that he can hold his own onscreen with a couple of Oscar winners, but the boy can.
Even when he's not shoveling up all that "show business."
"Water for Elephants"
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz. Directed by Francis Lawrence. 122 minutes.
Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.
Opened Friday in area theaters.