The Greatest Showman is a disjointed, glossy, sugar-coated mess that just skates by on Jackman’s natural charm and charisma.
The Greatest Showman has been a passion project for star Hugh Jackman for years, first entering development in 2009. It spent years treading water before finally getting off the ground (director Michael Gracey was hired in 2011), in part due to Fox’s reluctance to green light an original musical. The film explores the life of P.T. Barnum, who became the founder of the circus that would eventually become the world-famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus by shining a spotlight on the strange and extraordinary to bring joy to audiences everywhere. One can definitely see Jackman’s enthusiasm for the material come to life on the big screen, but the end results are quite disappointing. The Greatest Showman is a disjointed, glossy, sugar-coated mess that just skates by on Jackman’s natural charm and charisma.
P.T. Barnum (Jackman) is a man who comes from humble beginnings, struggling to make ends meet as he raises his two daughters with wife Charity (Michelle Williams). Barnum grows frustrated with his family’s simple life when his employer falls into bankruptcy and he loses his job. Desperate to provide his loved ones the best he can give them, Barnum swindles a bank into giving him a rather expensive loan, which he uses to purchase a museum full of wax figures. Failing to sell an ample amount of tickets, Barnum shifts his focus to highlighting live acts that are unlike anything that most everyone has ever seen.
His collection of oddities prove to be a smashing success, though there is tremendous blowback from the general public and the press who are unimpressed with the “freak show” that Barnum is putting on. Looking to legitimize and appeal to the high-brow crowd, Barnum recruits playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as a promotions man and appoints Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Fergusson) to be his new headliner. But as Barnum becomes more obsessed with chasing cheers and positive reviews, he runs the risk of losing sight of what’s most important to him.
Jackman is the undisputed star of this movie, and it’s abundantly clear he has a blast portraying this version of P.T. Barnum. The actor has long been known for his tremendous showmanship skills, and he gets to fully display that side of his persona in his performance. The Oscar-nominee carries the film on his shoulders, singing and dancing throughout the runtime in an effort to bring joy to viewers. While there will be some debate over how accurate The Greatest Showman‘s Barnum is when compared to the one from real-life (who was less savory in his dealings from time-to-time), Jackman knows exactly what this movie needs in order to land properly and gives it his all. At times, his energy can be infectious.
But, for better or worse, The Greatest Showman is Jackman’s show through and through. The screenplay, credited to Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, shortchanges just about everyone in the supporting cast, preventing any emotional through-line from fully resonating with the audience. Relationships Barnum has with his family, Carlyle, and his various circus acts are barely developed at all, and all of the respective arcs ring hollow due to a lack of investment. The film attempts to build towards a meaningful emotional climax, but it fails in execution since the story itself isn’t handled with the proper amount of care. Most egregious is the fact Barnum’s team of performers hardly register as characters and have very little to do. The group gets one moment to really shine, but even that falls flat due to poor writing. This is not the fault of the ensemble, however, as all the actors are very much committed to the numerous song and dance numbers.
In terms of the supporting cast, the biggest names (Efron, Williams, and Zendaya) are the ones The Greatest Showman tries to build up the most. Efron is somewhat fun as Carlyle, a member of the snooty theater elite, but at times the voice he puts on for the character slides into cartoonish realms. There is a half-hearted attempt at setting up a romantic dynamic between Carlyle and Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler (which also bafflingly looks to tackle social commentary), but that is essentially an afterthought by the time the credits roll. Like much in Greatest Showman, it’s rushed through and doesn’t pack the punch Gracey intended. Williams, an extremely talented actress in her own right, is underserved as Charity, being relegated to an archetype with no real layers to explore.
As indicated, The Greatest Showman is a musical, and unfortunately, there’s no great soundtrack to salvage an undercooked plot. Gracey makes the very curious decision to give the songs a more contemporary, trendy feel (which contradicts with the period setting), and as a result, the tunes come across as very bland. Some are catchy enough on their own, but within the context of the film, they start to blend together and nothing stands out as the track audiences will be humming on the ride home. This is all the more disappointing considering the lyrics were penned by La La Land duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who achieved great success on Damien Chazelle’s musical from last year. The pair might have been better-served sticking to the classic Hollywood sandbox they thrived in before.
In the end, The Greatest Showman is an ambitious, yet misguided, production that isn’t sure what it wants to be. There’s no denying it looks good on the big screen, but that won’t be enough to encourage audiences to check it out this holiday season en masse. The film is a bit problematic in its design, favoring artistic license that eschews the complexities of Barnum the man in order to make something easily digestible and family-friendly. All the ingredients were there to make the next great cinematic musical, but despite Jackman’s best efforts, it’ll go down as a well-intentioned misfire.
The Greatest Showman is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 105 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl.
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