'The Greatest Showman'
Define irony. How about a movie about the value of putting on a great show that is a mediocre show at best? Well, that’s ‘The Greatest Showman’ for you. The film is a massively expensive musical ode to old-fashioned showbiz razzmatazz that could use a little more of that good stuff itself.
This is as dull and uninspired and needlessly expensive as Hollywood musicals get. Most frustrating of all, the material is strong enough that it’s all too easy to see a better movie buried in the mess, desperate to get out.
Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, a man who started with nothing and created an empire. We meet him at the “nothing” stage. He falls in love with a girl named Charity (Michelle Williams), much to the chagrin of her wealthy father who disapproves of the loser of lesser breeding. All of this just inspires Barnum to get bigger. He has a knack for showmanship and salesmanship. He finds the money to make a massive museum of oddities in New York, and when that doesn’t sell enough tickets, he gets even more ambitious. He decides to put on a live show comprised of freaks and eccentric talents, as a way to give outsiders the spotlight and show how special they are. (Well, that’s how the movie presents it, anyway). It takes off. Barnum gets big. Obviously, that means there must be a downfall followed swiftly by redemption. What else could happen? That’s how musicals work.
‘The Greatest Showman’ has been a passion project for Hugh Jackman for ages. A spirited song and dance man before he got the Wolverine claws, Jackman’s been nudging at movie musicals and desperately wanted to get something original off the ground. Sadly, in the case of ‘The Greatest Showman’, “original” comes in air quotes. Indeed, there hasn’t been a musical about P.T. Barnum before. All the songs for the film were written especially for the movie. Unfortunately, everything else is borrowed from other, better musicals. Something about ‘The Greatest Showman’ just never clicks. P.T. Barnum’s story is strong enough that it should be able to withstand the heightened style of movie musicals, but it’s been reduced to clichés and platitudes. Nothing ever connects on an emotional level.
The constant stream of songs might have the volume and force of showstoppers, but they never actually stop the show (unless you count grinding the movie to a halt). They’re often fine, just never memorable. The press screening I attended was preceded by an introduction involving circus performers that played the entire soundtrack. Then the movie had to be stopped twenty minutes in and played from the start. Including the reprise in the end credits, I heard the opening song four times in a two-hour period. Afterwards, I couldn’t even remember a single lyric. It was even the song I probably liked the best in the whole show. That’s how unmemorable these tunes are.
Nothing in the drama or storytelling really sticks either. None of the characters are particularly memorable. You recognize them only because they’re either played by famous faces or flaunt some sort of prosthetic deformity. The whole thing trudges along at a steady enough clip that ‘The Greatest Showman’ isn’t boring, but it’s also never exciting. The lone plus side is that while effects-artist-turned-first-time-director Michael Gracey doesn’t have a knack for storytelling, drama or character, he can craft pretty pictures. The movie looks glossy and expensive at all times. The choreography for the big song and dance numbers is always massive and impressive as well. There are times when Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron are dancing around each other while squealing out some nonsense that you almost feel like you’re having fun because it’s so clear that they are. If nothing else, Jackman had a blast mounting this musical dream project. Shame about us audiences, though. The fun just doesn’t translate. This expensively dull holiday musical deserves to disappear, and likely will.