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'Water for Elephants' gets by on nostalgia. 

There's just enough going on under the big top to make total loathing impossible.

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It may be impossible to truly loathe "Water for Elephants." Faint praise, perhaps, but it's also a real feat considering its romantic leads are the inadvertently deadpan Robert Pattinson, whose cheekbones starred in the "Twilight" films, and Reese Witherspoon, who tends to make movies moms admire and boyfriends dread. "Water for Elephants" may fit that formula — but it also feels authentic to the Depression era in which it's mostly set, contains enough danger and action to temper the romance (and vice-versa) and strides ahead with purpose and verve. For an inoffensive big-budget star vehicle, it ain't bad at all.

We open in the rain, at a midway, where a bow-tied nonagenarian named Jacob Jankowski (a plucky Hal Holbrook) reveals to a curious carny that he was present for a legendary 1931 circus disaster. Plied by scotch, he tosses the narration to his former self (Pattinson) just as young Jacob is on the verge of graduating Cornell with a veterinary medicine degree. In short order, Jacob's life implodes, and the young man falls in with the traveling — and struggling — Binzini Brothers circus. Its owner, August (Christoph Waltz), takes a shine to the forthright Ivy Leaguer, and appoints him veterinarian. Jacob immediately defies his boss by putting down the ailing lead horse in the circus' top act, which happens to star August's wife, Marlena (Witherspoon). August erupts with a wrath that serves to push Jacob and Marlena closer together. Then he regroups and bets the circus' future on a bold acquisition: An elephant, name of Rosie. Jacob has to train her; Marlena has to ride her; and August has to mistreat her so we know he's the bad guy.

Fans of the novel (a former No. 1 New York Times bestseller in paperback) will notice that the film has promoted August from head trainer to owner, while fans of "Inglourious Basterds" will notice that Waltz is finally in another role that wraps a murderer's disposition in an aristocrat's refinement. Waltz' August thrashes his elephant, feeds his big cats spoiled meat, has his workers tossed from the moving train to avoid paying them — and yet, he still beguiles. That Waltz can inspire fear, hatred and respect is a credit to his prowess. That Pattinson can even hold down the other half of the screen says a great deal for the young recovering vampire.

Pattinson and Witherspoon manage something like chemistry together, but she never quite convinces us why he'd be willing to risk his life to step between her and August. That she's 10 years his senior doesn't derail the romance — Hollywood has run that age gap plenty of times, just with genders reversed — and she's mostly believable as the star attraction wife who has been pampered enough to maintain her pinup-girl looks. Director Francis Lawrence, a music video veteran, seems content that the idea of Marlena will be enough to seduce the audience.

Though "Water for Elephants" packs a lot of grit and violence into its two PG-rated hours, it also leans heavily on images and ideas rooted in American nostalgia for its formative pre-war years. Thus we're treated to loving shots of locomotives and burlesque dancers and big tops decked with 48-starred American flags. We notice the faint outline of modest undergarments (read: granny-panties) beneath Marlena's elegant Garbo-ready evening gown. When August stands resplendent in his ringmaster's red coat and top hat, exclaiming "the most extravagant extravaganza the human eye can behold" to a tentful of wide-eyed rubes, we lean forward. This is America, mired in a busted economy, and we know this pitch by heart. Even if we don't totally believe the boy-girl romance at its center, you can't help but leave "Water for Elephants" with a heart going pitty-pat for the nasty, brutish circus life, always peddling magic for suckers.

Sam Eifling

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