Robert Pattinson has the face of a film-noir dupe. It’s a face that is searching and open and kind. It’s a face that a certain type of woman might want to fool because, in its intensely old-fashioned kindness, the face says, “I love you. Fool me.’’ This isn’t what girls and their aunts and their mothers — the so-called, so obsessed “Twi’’-hards — see in that face. What they see, as it glitters, pales, and smolders with 100 years of undead solitude, is a projection that makes them whisper: “Bite me.’’
That antique nature of Pattinson’s face gets an antique setting in “Water for Elephants,’’ a beautiful and boring movie set in a traveling circus during the Great Depression. Pattinson is liberated from the brooding, computer-generated action and noise of the “Twilight’’ movies and put beside Reese Witherspoon, the “Inglourious Basterds’’ Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, scores of extras, and an elephant the size of a two-bedroom apartment. It remains unclear whether Pattinson is any kind of actor, but it wouldn’t be premature to declare that, at the very least, he’s not the bad kind.
Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowksi, a Cornell veterinary student who’s left homeless after his Polish immigrant parents are killed in an automobile accident. He hops aboard a moving train that belongs to the Benzini Brothers circus and assumes the job of animal doctor. Death provides a natural occasion for The Face to do its melancholy thing. Instead, Pattinson uses the movie to give his smile some exercise. Jacob sees Marlena (Witherspoon), the pretty, gaunt acrobat with a platinum bob who stars in the circus’s horse show, and rather than think as I did — she should be eating that horse, not riding it — he simply falls in love.
It’s the movie-ish ease with which Jacob succumbs that allows you to notice how ripe for exploitation he is. The veteran screenwriter Richard LaGravenese adapted the movie from a popular, unabashedly sentimental 2007 novel by Sara Gruen. It’s not “Double Indemnity.’’ But every time Jacob is in a room with Marlena and her brutally possessive husband, the circus’s owner, August (Waltz), or when she sways with Jacob to R-rated Bessie Smith, you feel he’s being conned.
With all due respect to the casting process, this feels like a trio that tested better in an executive’s office than on a movie set. It’s that lack of chemistry that makes you think a scheme is brewing. Why else would one of them want anything to do with the other two? They wind up lavishing attention on the elephant. Her name is Rosie, she’s played by Tai (check her out on Twitter!), and in creating, then shattering the illusion that she’s just a big, dumb beast, Tai gives the best performance in the movie. (It’s a photo finish with Hal Holbrook, who plays an older, chattier Jacob.)
The director Francis Lawrence also made “I Am Legend’’ and is an accomplished maker of music videos. (He put Britney Spears in a top hat and tails for her “Circus’’ clip.) But this movie sags when it wants to lilt.
The camera, costumes, and art direction do everything right. Too much so. The movie strips away both the grand weirdness of the circus and the dire desolation of the Depression. Diane Arbus and Dorothea Lange are exchanged for Vanity Fair.
The movie maintains a manufactured glossiness that seems more 1920s than 1930s. And in Jacob’s striving infatuation for a wispy blond Venus, it’s not a circus performer he sees when he looks at Marlena. It’s F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s Daisy. All along the “fool me’’ had been saying something else: “I thought this was ‘Gatsby’.’’Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.