Francis Lawrence‘s Water for Elephants (20th Century Fox, 4.22) would be your mother’s or aunt’s idea of a nice circus movie with a love story…if it weren’t for Christoph Waltz, or what should probably be called the “Waltz effect.” I’m speaking of any character this 54 year-old actor plays that’s strongly reminiscent of his Oscar-winning turn as Col. Hans Landa, the grinningly sadistic Nazi “Jew hunter” in Inglorious Basterds.

Waltz plays August, a sadistic travelling-circus owner with a faint Austrian accent who likes to bully and threaten his economic dependents and also torture circus animals and feed them rotting food and order his henchmen to throw workers off a moving train at night when he can’t afford to pay them. That’s what audiences are paying to see these days, right? Movies with lush orchestral scores about guys getting pounded and bloodied and wives being threatened and psychologically brutalized and animals getting jabbed with sharp instruments and made to bleed?

Water for Elephants is the kind of emotional mood-trip film that could have been made in ’83 or ’71 or ’58 or ’51. It’s shaped like Titanic (i.e., bookended with a choked-up elderly person telling a story of his/her romantic past) and tries to invoke Days of Heaven in a couple of shots and is scored within an inch of its life, but it’s basically a handsomely mounted pageant for squares who smile and go “aahhh” as they watch elephants raise their trunks and stand on their hind legs. Because the elephant (called Rosie in the film) is definitely the best thing about it. That, at least, is what I said to a friend as we left last night’s screening.

Except if Water for Elephants had been made 60 or 53 or 40 or 28 years ago Robert Pattinson‘s character, Jacob Jankowski, would probably have acted in a semi-rational fashion at the beginning of the film. By which I mean he wouldn’t abandon Cornell University, where he’s studying to be a veterinarian, before graduating simply because his parents have died and his home has been sold. Life is hard but you have to hold on. Because bailing on an already-paid-for education in the middle of the 1930s Depression is something only a bone-dumb moron would do.

I quit Water for Elephants when this happened. I stayed in my seat and kept watching until the end, but I had basically resigned and was just marking time. Because I can’t and won’t abide idiots who refuse to act sensibly in the face of major threats.

You might think Water for Elephants is a love story given the ad images of hunky Pattinson and platinum-blonde Reese Witherspoon standing close together and touching and staring into each other’s eyes. But that’s not the movie…not really. Water for Elephants is basically about cruelty, brutality and stupidity. The lights go down, the curtains part and the film basically smiles and says, “Shake hands, Mr. and Mrs. America, with a truly cruel and venal sick fuck of a character — Waltz! — and prepare to wait and wait and wait through most of the film until he finally gets his just desserts. It’ll be moderately satisfying when this finally happens, of course, but he’s a one-note fellow who’s rather tedious company, trust us, during the first two acts. But he’s ‘the guy’, the narrative engine, the man with the bullwhip. And the task of watching Water For Elephhants means you’ll be stuck with this asshole, and at the end of the day you’ll be the worse for it.”

Otherwise Water for Elephants is prettified…make that laquered sentimental nostalgia and a boilerplate romantic-yesteryear bromide with two “lead” performances that don’t quite work. The good-looking but unemotive Pattinson smiles alot but spends a lot of time glaring and sulking and not looking especially bright. Witherspoon is supposed to be playing some kind of squawky-voiced, Jean Harlow-ish floozie type but can’t quite pull it off — she’s too nice and Reese-y for that. The film also has an odd-looking Hal Holbrook, who’s had some kind of work done to his much-wider face to the extent that he looks very different than he did in Into The Wild.

Anyway, this is what I meant when I brought up your mom or your aunt. They like soft-soap romanticism and weird plastic surgery and young leads who look pretty but don’t really connect, etc.

The film is based on Sara Gruen’s popular book, which I haven’t read. I’m guessing that Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravanese have taken what was good and appealing and mulched it down into something else.

MSN’s James Rocchi, who recently shared some kind words about this film, needs to retire to the privacy of a bathroom and look at himself in the mirror and say, “Who am I? What have I done?” He also has to answer to the Movie Godz, who read his remarks the other day and have already gotten in touch and asked me, “What’s up with this guy? He’s supposed to be a tough brilliant critic and he calls this thing ‘a gorgeous romantic tale of life, love and beauty’? Which it is, we suppose, but only in the most superficial picture-postcard sense. Get in touch and ask him what the deal is.”