FILM REVIEW – THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. With Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Paul Sparks. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. Directed by Michael Gracey. Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl. 105 minutes.
There are certain genres that Hollywood used to excel at and now seems to get right only by accident: westerns, romantic comedies, musicals. It’s gotten so some critics and moviegoers can’t even tell the difference anymore, so that the leaden “La La Land” was hailed year as the return of the musical, instead of being recognized as the derivative mush it was.
In what we can only hope won’t be a series of bad musicals, we now get THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, with Hugh Jackman playing P.T. Barnum in a cartoonish and whitewashed version that has only a passing resemblance to history. Of course, dressing up Barnum’s life with a lot of hokum might be said to be keeping with the spirit of his character: he exploited “freaks” – the midget “Tom Thumb,” a bearded lady, conjoined twins Chang and Eng – to sell tickets to a gullible public. In this movie, he creates a “family” where these outcasts all belong. This no doubt would have surprised Barnum.
The filmmakers then made a series of mistakes. They decided to make their movie a musical. They apparently rejected adapting an already existing musical (1980 Tony nominee “Barnum”). And they hired Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – who wrote the lyrics for “La La Land’s” unmemorable songs – to pen the songs here. The result is a treacly mess.
As told here, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams) in spite of the fact that he’s poor and she comes from a wealthy family which objects to the marriage. Through chicanery and nerve, he launches his museum of oddities which slowly morphs into what we come to be known as a circus. Although it’s a success, he faces opposition from a snooty critic (Paul Sparks) who finds the show appalling and from local ruffians who hate it for reasons never entirely clear. He brings in a successful playwright (Zac Efron) to help him appeal to the “carriage trade.” However, Barnum is not satisfied with financial success. He wants legitimacy and respect, which he attempts to obtain by producing the American tour of Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a singer known as “the Swedish Nightingale.”
While all this is going on, viewers may find themselves dreading the next musical number, with an array of undistinguished songs that Jackman and company try to sell to no avail. The music and lyrics are repetitive and once one gets the simple message of each song there’s no reason to go on, but go on they do. Jackman is an experienced song-and-dance man on stage, and showcasing him in a vehicle where he’s not Wolverine is an appealing idea. However, after this and the earlier “Les Misérables,” it may be a long time, if ever, that he gets a chance on screen again. For all his energy and cute poses, the staginess of the production numbers will remind many why movie musicals went out of fashion.
The paint-by-numbers nature of the story further undercuts the production. When Efron’s genteel character falls in love with the African-American aerialist (Zendaya), you know it’s only a matter of time before they have to confront a watered-down version of 19th-century racism. When Barnum abandons his family to go on tour with Lind, the film tries to have it both ways: he’s accused of having an affair with her but – at least here – he really didn’t. Cue his wife’s forgiveness.
“The Greatest Showman” is a film that will be quickly forgotten. As such it’s unworthy of its subject or its star.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.