‘Water for Elephants': Edward Cullen Goes to the Circus

Pattinson’s no Leo DiCaprio, and after a nice start with its period detail, the movie’s well goes dry

John Travolta. Jason Priestley and Luke Perry. David and Shaun Cassidy. Scott Baio. Leonardo DiCaprio. James Van Der Beek. Zac Efron. Daniel Radcliffe. Johnny Depp.

There’s nothing harder than going from teen heartthrob to adult male star. It’s a road many have traveled, though few successfully. Who knows whether James Dean would have had a sustained career into his thirties and forties if he hadn’t crashed his Porsche on a rural California highway at age 24 in 1955.

The jury is still out, of course, on Efron and Radcliffe, who at 23 and 21 respectively have only been shaving for a few years. Of the rest of the list above, Travolta, Depp and DiCaprio have had continuing, major league careers, while the others have had to find new day jobs.

Part of the problem is that exactly what it is about these guys that makes the hearts of teen girls flutter works against them when they age. There’s something a little soft and non-threatening about them, they’re frequently slight of build and diminutive in height – early objects of lust for their female tween and teen fans, no matter how much of a bad boy image they project.

But it also makes that transition to adult male lead a greater challenge, especially when they must appeal equally to male moviegoers, if not more so.

With rare exceptions — hello, Tyrone Power and Brad Pitt — pretty boys just don’t cut it past age 25.

Robert Pattinson, now 24, clearly wants an adult career. The British-born actor, of course, rose risen to stardom and tabloid fame playing nice guy vampire Edward Cullen in the first three “Twilight” films (with the final two chapters still to come, the first this year and the concluding installment in 2012).

It’s the role that fans adore him in and want to see him playing. When he attempted to go beyond his blood-sucking signature role in last year’s “Remember Me,” the romantic drama grossed less than $20 million at the box office. His portrayal of the bisexual artist Salvador Dali in “Little Ashes” made even less of a ripple at the box office.

Now comes “Water for Elephants,” based on a bestselling 2006 novel by Sara Gruen. In this period romantic drama directed by Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), Pattinson plays Jacob, a veterinary student during the Great Depression. When his parents die, he joins a traveling circus, where his duties including looking after a newly purchased elephant.

He soon becomes smitten with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the show’s star performer. The hitch: her husband, August (Christoph Waitz), the circus’ owner, is a jealous, sadistic guy.

The movie draws you in early on, with its period detail and insider’s glimpse at the daily minutia of circus life. But the well goes dry quickly, despite much huffing and puffing, as it becomes clear that “Water” is interested only in its three major characters and their complicated romantic dilemma. Supporting characters are too hastily sketched in, serving only to further the unsmooth course of true love.

The trouble is, the triangle is too narrow a focus — and it doesn’t help that there’s little heat between Pattinson and Witherspoon. While he gives a passable performance as an impassioned young swain, Witherspoon doesn’t project the vulnerability her  character needs. One can easily imagine her as a fast-talking, full of moxie, screwball heroine in a ‘30s setting, but as the in-need-of-recue Marlena she’s just too brittle.

I’m guessing “Water” will please Pattinson’s enthusiastic fans. His character is (sigh) sensitive and protectively caring of his ladylove – those same qualities that have endeared his Edward Cullen to Twihards. It’s a promising step on the road away from Forks, Washington, but too soon to tell if it will be enough.