Who's In It: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton
The Basics: Pattinson's a young veterinary student who's lost everything and hops a train to go join the circus. Witherspoon's the beautiful star attraction of a traveling show and she's married to ringmaster Waltz, a man simmering with violence and suspicion. Of course, he has good reason to be suspicious because that young vet is about to slow-burn his way into her heart with his passion for being nice to animals and his ability to woo a non-compliant elephant--a creature for whom English is not a first language--by speaking magical commands in Polish.
What's The Deal: This is a "Mom Movie." And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's just that Hollywood's not been in the business of making many of those lately. So know going in that this is a very old-fashioned romantic drama that moves at a slower-than-2011 pace, one where easy-to-predict love triangle resolution is coming in the final moments, where furrowed brow romance-gazing sometimes stands in for chemistry and where, even if you're bored, there are lots of cool period details and circus animals to look at.
Swoon Factor: When Reese Witherspoon stars in a movie she tends to dominate everyone around her. But not here. She steps back and lets it be Pattinson's show. But his performance is sort of quiet itself. He does a lot of staring and a lot of reacting to injustices and cruelty, a lot of letting the camera love his good looks, a lot of getting beaten up and a lot of letting the camera love how good he looks even after just getting beaten up. It's a showcase for him that's meant to keep you from remembering that in real life he's a sparkly vampire. So if you're already on board that train you'll be happy to know that it's not slowing down anytime soon.
MVPs: Christoph Waltz is dancing with typecasting danger here by employing the same long-fuse psychopath moves he displayed as the cruel Nazi from Inglourious Basterds, but he does it so well that you're actually nervous when he arrives on screen. You keep wondering when he's going to snap and implement his own circus holocaust. And the elephant that plays the stubborn "Rosie" is the most expressive animal actor I've seen in a long time. She's got eyes that'll tug at your heart almost as much as Dumbo's mother's.
What It Could Have Used More Of: Old-timey slang. At one point a character says, "She'll just high-hat ya" (that means to be aloof and snub someone, by the way) and it happens early in the film, so you're all ready to be entertained by the funny expressions of 1931 for the next couple of hours. And then that promise sort of withers on the vine, possibly in an attempt to keep contemporary audiences from asking each other, "What does 'high hat' mean?" But I was sort of bummed out by its absence.