Director: Michael Gracey
Writers: Jenny Bicks (screenplay by), Bill Condon (screenplay by)
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya
Hugh Jackman will forever be known for Wolverine, however as the “SNL” sketch “Two Sides” notes, Jackman has two sides. He can be Logan but he’s also a musical theater guy. Now that Logan is behind him he can focus on realizing his dream of being a 21st Gene Kelly. His passion project “The Greatest Showman” about P.T. Barnum is a fascinating window into Jackman. He clearly relishes in playing Barnum as Gabbo, all but actually singing “you’re gonna like me, you’re gonna love me!”. The problem is that in wanting to play the showman he chooses as story that glosses over the darker elements of Barnum and his most famous creation; the circus, in favor of a film that’s only ambition is to crowd please. Crowd pleasing in and of itself isn’t a bad thing and on that level the film mostly works but it causes everything to ring false.
“The Greatest Showman” opens up with a young Barnum (Ellis Rubin), the poor son of a tailor. While he accompanies his father on a job he meets the wealthy Charity (Skylar Dunn). She is the daughter of a wealthy family and they bond after he makes her laugh. Her father sees this budding friendship and then banishes her off to finishing school. Barnum is reminded that he’s beneath Charity but that doesn’t deter him. They send clandestine letters back and forth until one day they’re married and have two daughters. The adult Charity (Michelle Williams) loves that Barnum is full of whimsy and has no problem eschewing her wealth to support his dreams.
After losing his job as an accounting clerk he decides now is the time to break out of his monotonous life. He cons a bank into loaning him $10,000 so he can buy a museum of oddities. At first no one is biting but his daughters give him the idea of finding living acts. Barnum recruits a bevy of “freaks” that happen to live in town. The three freaks that the audience actually gets to meet are Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), the Bearded Lady Lettie (Keala Settle), and the trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya). Barnum’s show is instantly the talk of the town. At first people are terrified at the people Barnum puts front and center but then they are dazzled. Well, almost everyone. There are certain townspeople that want these freaks ridden out of town on a rail. There is also the critic James Gordon Bennett who lambasts Barnum for being a huckster. Barnum then makes it his mission to elevate his show and himself into high society.
The problem with this critique is that his show isn’t a con. What you see is what you get. Every oddity is as advertised so that seems like an odd corner to take on Barnum’s show. Furthermore, the film paints Barnum as this huckster but with the exception of conning the bank to loan him money, he doesn’t really swindle anyone. Sure, he’s charismatic and a barker but not a flim-flam man. The real Barnum is credited with the famous line “There’s a sucker born every minute”. That line is not in the film which is a clear and conscious choice. Jackman’s Barnum is meant to be a well-meaning dreamer who uses his force of personality to make his dreams happen.
Every character exists to serve Barnum and while they are given stuff to do, it is purely surface level. Barnum recruits playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to help him make the show better. Barnum persuades him by convincing him that he’s unhappy and confined by being born into wealth. At no point does the film actually show the audience that this is the case. When they meet Phillip seems unhappy that this particular work isn’t his best but other than that Phillip isn’t a character. That undercuts this moment where all of a sudden Phillip buys into the circus. Ditto, his relationship with Anne. They meet and she doesn’t like him. Then after hearing a performance of renowned opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) they’re in love. At no point does the film bother to give Anne a character nor do they give her trapeze artist brother W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Maheen II) a name. Barnum and Charity are supposed to have this collaborative relationship but that is never shown. He gets caught up with Jenny Lind and both that character and that conflict just come and go. It’s a shame because every actor is giving their best but there isn’t anything for anyone to do. Every relationship is yada-yada’d so they can get to the next musical number. All the conflict is waved away in an instant because all that stuff gets in the way of the songs.
The songs themselves are power pop dialed up to 11. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek help craft these songs that are at times catchy and all times delivered at the highest volumes by the cast. The songs are great but most songs don’t feel as though they weren’t written specifically for this movie. The musical numbers themselves are repetitive save for the number between Anne and Phillip which utilizes her trapeze ability. This is a bummer because had the film hired a better director they could’ve made better use of the actual circus. It isn’t clear what happens at the circus when each act takes place. It’s all the same opening number and then its yada-yada’d again. All of a sudden Barnum has elephants even though it’s established that he wanted or acquired them in the first place.
Director Michael Gracey wasn’t a great choice for this project. He’s a visual effects guy by trade and while everything looks glossy and vibrant, the choreography is over shot and lacks any real vibrancy. That’s been an issue with most musicals over the last 20 years. Any filmmaker that wants to make a musical should study Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen etc. because nowadays most directors are content filming musicals like they’re either embarrassed to be making a musical or are ripping off Baz Luhrman.
“The Greatest Showman” plays like the Disneyland show of P.T. Barnum’s life. It’s the version he would’ve told. That’s fine. It didn’t have to be a musical expose into Barnum and the institution of the circus. Jackman and company set out to give families a rollicking good time around the holidays and they will surely accomplish that goal. If they had tried a little harder they could’ve created an experience people won’t forget two hours after they had seen it.