| A young man's journey of self-discovery is the premise for this romantic period piece based on the 2006 novel by Sara Gruen, which held the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks.
The acting triumvirate of Robert Pattinson (best known as the vampire Edward Cullen in the "Twilight" saga), Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line" and "Legally Blonde") and Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds") headline the marquee in the lead roles.
The movie begins like "Titanic" with an old man (Hal Holbrook from "Into the Wild" and currently appearing in NBC's "The Event") in a nursing home looking back to the year 1931 when America was in the middle of the Great Depression and alcohol was banned by prohibition. As he recalls his youth, ardent movie watchers will draw comparisons to "The Notebook."
Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), a veterinary student at Cornell, jumps a moving train after the tragic death of his parents in an automobile accident leaves him penniless. It turns out the train is carrying the Benzini Bros. Circus. Jacob convinces August (Waltz), the owner/ringmaster, that he can handle the medical needs of the animals.
Jacob develops friendships with various members of the circus troupe. The strongest ties are with the fetching blonde star performer Marlena (Witherspoon), who happens to be married to August, and the newly acquired bull elephant Rosie (Tai from "Vanity Fair" and "Operation Dumbo Drop"), who responds best to commands delivered in Polish.
August turns out to be the pivotal character in a romantic triangle. His mercurial mood swings run the gamut from charmingly polite to mad as a hatter. His ambitious desire for fame and success drives him to use questionable and cruel tactics.
Director Francis Lawrence ("Constantine" and "I Am Legend") and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese ("The Horse Whisperer" and "The Bridges of Madison County") have captured on film the essence of this dramatic tale of forbidden love. They had a difficult task condensing the novel into two hours. They have inserted some humor and clever wordplay with song titles. The steamy passion of the book has been toned down to appeal to a wider audience.
Teenage girls and their moms will be especially enthralled by the attractive pairing of a naive young man and an older woman of experience. The cougar phenomenon is definitely in play.
The movie gives the viewer a taste of the nomadic existence for those lucky enough to be part of a traveling circus. It also touches upon the vernacular unique to circus folk, including the practice of throwing unwanted and no longer useful employees off the moving train, known as "redlighting."
The movie weaves it magic through gorgeous cinematography, costumes and sets. The musical score from composer James Newton Howard is fantastic and reflects the time period. The menagerie of colorful animals includes a lion, giraffe, hyena, tigers and horses.
Pattinson shows maturity in his acting. He holds up his end as the central figure and also serves as the voice-over narrator for the bulk of the movie. His winning chemistry with the elephant is apparent from their initial meeting.
Witherspoon is a vision of loveliness in her skimpy costumes. She is convincing as the outwardly beautiful and seductive star attraction while at the same time being fragile and vulnerable on the inside. It is easy to see why her intoxicating presence causes Jacob to fall deeply in love.
Waltz manages a difficult tightrope act in his portrayal of the bad guy. His paranoid schizophrenia is compellingly gregarious and terrifyingly repulsive in equal parts.
The most endearing cast member has to be the well-trained elephant Tai, a 42-year-old female pachyderm who weighs 9,000 pounds. It is worth the price of admission just to see her perform a variety of tusk-turning stunt routines. Tai's trainer, Gary Johnson, said she was rewarded for her good work on the set with an apple, a carrot and a little candy. Her favorite sweets are jelly beans.
Molly O'Neill from Overland Park makes a cameo appearance as a circus showgirl riding a horse. Gruen, while researching her book, stayed at the home of novelist Carrie Kabak and her husband Mark Kabak, a former elephant handler at the Kansas City Zoo. He served as a consultant for the book and introduced Gruen to some of his former charges, including the soon-to-be 50-year-old Penny from Africa, who has been residing at the Swope Park facility since July 1971.
Those who have read the book will notice that liberties have been taken with the story arc to arrive at the conclusion. The older Jacob's struggles to adjust to life in the nursing home are completely missing from the screenplay. Uncle Al is noticeably absent as well, having been merged into August as the singular representation of evil. The secondary characters are given short shrift with limited screen time.
Those wanting more character depth and an even more rewarding experience should buy or borrow Gruen's excellent novel. It is a thrilling, irresistible masterpiece that is hard to put down.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"