Hugh Jackman steals the show in a Baz Luhrmann-y confection that's candy for the eyes but frustratingly slight.
In a year with no Baz Luhrmann movie, The Greatest Showman fills the gap with a gigantic, brassy, unashamedly over-the-(big)-top circus musical with one eye on the multiplex and the other on the pop charts. As befits an origin story for legendary American impresario, entrepreneur and snake oil salesman P.T. Barnum and his troupe of talented oddballs and outsiders, it’s low on subtlety, high on spectacle and crams its poppy, hummable tunes so far down your ear holes, you’ll need a Q-tip to fish them out.
First-time director Michael Gracey packs the big numbers with visual snap, but this is the Hugh Jackman show all the way. The Aussie engages his likability, hips and vocal chords to haul us into the film’s rich nineteenth-century fantasia and Barnum’s giddy journey from scrappy outsider to wealthy circus master. The story swaggers forward in a swirl of choreographed pop numbers by La La Land songsmiths Pasek and Paul as Barnum recruits his novelty acts. This X-Men meets America’s Got Talent posse includes Keala Settle’s bearded lady, Zendaya’s acrobat and Sam Humphrey’s diminutive Tom Thumb. Standing between his circus “freaks” and showbiz stardom is an angry mob of protesters and Paul Sparks’ frosty theater critic, a snobbish cipher for high society’s contempt for Barnum’s rowdy new art form.
There are obvious parallels between the grasping, PR-savvy Barnum and Donald Trump, but Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script tacks carefully around them. There’s no appetite to turn over the stone to see what lies beneath this master of hokum, either. Instead, we’re washed by waves of dialogue that feel lifted from a motivational postcard. But it cuts only one way when it comes to the two women in his life: Playing, respectively, loyal wife Charity and her love rival, opera star Jenny Lind, Michelle Williams and Rebecca Ferguson are saddled with frustratingly dull and underwritten roles. Tellingly, we always learn more about Barnum than either of them during their encounters with him.
But while it may not be strong on nuance and the story moves with all the careful pacing of a human cannonball, it’s got gusto and verve in abundance. An old-fashioned musical with a none-more-zeitgeisty songsheet, it may not be a flawless piece of storytelling, but it’s a pretty decent show.
Cast and crew