As cornball goes, there’s nothing cornier than running away to join the circus. And that’s why Water for Elephants works so beautifully: It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an old-fashioned melodrama yarn-spun for as much emotion and tragedy and romance as possible. Robert Pattinson (Remember Me) was clearly looking to get far away from the mopey vampire haunting him, and he couldn’t have chosen a better role than Jacob, a veterinary student at the beginning of the Great Depression who takes up with the down-on-its-luck Benzini Brothers traveling circus, falls for its star attraction — glamorous stunt horse rider Marlena (Reese Witherspoon [How Do You Know], lovely as ever) — and finds himself on the wrong end of the ire of her husband, circus boss August (Christoph Waltz: The Green Hornet). If there’s nothing quite like the romance of the circus anymore, director Francis Lawrence — in a refreshing change of pace from his comic-booky cinematic past, which includes I Am Legend and Constantine — doesn’t hesitate to show us that there never was any real romance: this circus is a dirty, desperate place ruled with an iron fist by a man who relishes his power over the people and the animals he commands. Waltz proves again why he deserves his instant movie stardom by refusing, for a good long while, to let us be sure if August is a villain, but the tale is shaped by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You), based on the novel by Sara Gruen [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], so that we can literally see disaster coming, and can’t help but know — hope, even — that August will be caught in the middle of it. For we do come to love Jacob and Marlena, together and separately, and wish for them the very best kind of happiness, in the way that the corniest cornball romantic melodramas effortlessly make you do.