It’s been mused before that Hugh Jackman was born in the wrong era. As an immensely talented song and dance man, he would have ruled on high from Vaudeville and the glitzy black and white toe-tappers that were the closest the Depression generation came to superhero events. Yet even with multiple Tonys and an Oscar nomination for Les Miserables under his belt, Jackman’s desire to truly bring that kind of unabashed conviviality back to the mainstream has never been so fully realized as in The Greatest Showman. For here is an old-fashioned star vehicle that was designed from the ground up to showcase his talent with an intentionally jarring modern pop undercurrent.
Featuring multiple songs that could just as easily be the basis for extra tracks on Taylor Swift’s newest album, The Greatest Showman aims to be both a classic kind of family entertainment and something as anachronistic as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! But while it daringly features its own original music, unlike Luhrmann’s pop collage, Showman also lacks that inspiration’s audacity and subversive streak. It is going for a broader commercial audience than Luhrmann’s art house darling, but in the process Greatest Showman becomes as innocuous and toothless as the benign Top 40 bubblegum it so desperately emulates. Hence why despite its circus and human “oddity” subject matters, the strangest sight is that of a musical determined to play for a generation that doesn’t watch musicals.
Envisioned with a glow so rosy behind its lens that it’s a wonder the scenery itself isn’t blushing, The Greatest Showman tells with immeasurable cheer the life story of P.T. Barnum. Legend suggests Barnum was the man who originated the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but as portrayed by a buoyant and joyful Jackman, that could never be. As relayed through a massively efficient exposition song, he is but a tailor’s boy who falls in love with a girl born from New York high society. As a teenager, he convinces Charity (Michelle Williams) to run away with him and start a new life. But 10 years later, and with two daughters to support, their tenement lifestyle chafes Barnum’s thwarted ambition.
Luckily this is nothing to worry about. No conflict in this film is too insurmountable when faced with a little American gumption and a slickly produced four-chord song. Soon enough Barnum has his idea for a show that stars people who he historically called “freaks,” although this glistening version never has Barnum utter such a word. They are gifted people like the Bearded Woman (a soulful Keala Settle) or a dwarf dressed as Napoleon named Charlie (Sam Humphrey). Barnum is even depicted in the film as a free-thinker as much as an opportunist when he hires Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler as his star African American acrobat.
By recasting the shrewd capitalistic venture that popularized the term “freak show” into an empowering articulation of beautiful individualism, everything Barnum and his new business partner, the delightfully bored blue blood Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), is swell until ol’ P.T. begins chasing dreams of high society acceptance, and lets a seductive opera singer (Rebecca Ferguson) into his oeuvre. But even then, the songs are epic crowd-pleasers.
In many ways, the movie’s ultimately central conflict of an artist with mainstream success wishing to crossover into rarified respectability feels intimately drawn from Jackman’s own career. Despite being loved for his blockbuster roles, particularly those involving mutants and other types of “oddities,” Jackman still crosses the culture lines to be valued as a sensitive artiste on the boards of Broadway, or in decidedly less four-quadrant films like Prisoners and The Fountain. However, that narrative of tortured ambition is not what’s on Greatest Showman’s mind… or in its feet. To showcase the intended beauty of the many waltzing set-pieces, any narrative beats are drenched in a saccharine glaze so heavy that it could drown one of P.T.’s elephants.
This unfortunately leads most of the supporting roles to be ticket stub thin, as Michelle Williams is wasted in the part of supportive (but suffering) wife, and all the gifted performers are treated with the level of sincerity found in a greeting card. Some of that thinness is beneficial, however, as Zendaya’s undeniable charm wouldn’t have felt any more out of place in this 19th century setting than if she had whipped out an iPhone.
Still, like the older musical vehicles, narrative and character are but scenery on the drive toward the next song, and first-time director Michael Gracey achieves a splendid and acutely glossy affectation to all of the musical numbers. Tracking each of the heavily choreographed belters with a wildly aggressive camera, there is an undeniable shimmer to the taps. One particular highlight is where Jackman and Efron haggle over the latter’s percentage in the circus as a business partner. It’s a bit that wouldn’t have been out of place for Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, and the movie would have been better served to have them musically spar more.
Unfortunately, most of the music from Benji Pasek and Justin Paul becomes the movie’s greatest albatross. With nearly every number designed to evoke the faux-empowerment of a Katy Perry anthem like “Firework” or “Roar,” it becomes just as insipid as those squad goals, save for that Showman’s imitations often miss the tantalizing hook. The two exceptions are Settle’s showstopper about not being ashamed for being different, “This is Me,” which errs closer to a Lady Gaga ballad, and “Never Enough,” Ferguson’s big Adele-styled showcase in an opera house. It has as much to do with opera as “Rolling in the Deep,” but damned if it won’t bring the house down.
Intriguingly, Pasek and Paul wrote the lyrics for last year’s La La Land, and as they take the reins for song and lyrics here, they aim to make something far less nostalgic. However, the contrast just heightens the notable disappointments in Showman’s book of songs when it has much better singers than Ryan Gosling, not least of which includes Hugh Jackman, and yet the film doesn’t have a fraction of the art or joy that came from La La‘s more limited range.
The Greatest Showman is so eager to entertain, and so earnest in its sentimentality, that it is hard to fully begrudge its bounding goodwill. The strategically placed syrup might be as calculated as a sales pitch from the real P.T. Barnum, but there is a harmless desire to simply entertain that is occasionally charming. It probably is true that Jackman is the greatest showman alive, but he deserves a better venue than this to exhibit that magic.