20th CENTURY FOX (2017)
Director: Michael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
Roll up, roll up…
Hugh Jackman has been waiting a long time to have this movie made. Now, The Greatest Showman is upon us - based on the life of circus founder P.T. Barnum and helmed by debutant Michael Gracey, his dream has become reality. Barnum himself led an interesting life, swindling and hoaxing as much as wowing and amazing people and he certainly wasn’t a fully stand-up kind of guy.
The Greatest Showman will try to convince you otherwise.
Born into a struggling New York family, P.T. Barnum (Jackman) never knew wealth or riches as a child. The closest he came was a brief childhood romance with Charity (Williams) – the daughter of a wealthy client of Barnum’s tailor father – and who was the girl who would later become his wife. As Barnum struggles through employment, the promise made to Charity (and, later, their two daughters) of a better life drifts further away with each day. One day, he is hit with an epiphany – he will put on a unique, macabre show to pull audiences in and make him rich. With that dream failing, he begins to incorporate human oddities into a now-live show – the Bearded Lady, Dog Boy, the Irish Giant to name but a few – and New York was captivated. Expanding his repertoire with the addition of famed playwright Phillip Carlyle (Efron) in an attempt to legitimise his shows and please the stuffy press, Barnum becomes hooked with the buzz of the show. The recruitment of famed opera singer Jenny Lind (Ferguson) (and subsequent high-end tour), begins to alienate Barnum from his family and troupe as the obsession becomes all-encompassing and problems begin to quickly mount as success isn’t quite as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be.
Capitalising on the festive cheer an end of December release date brings – which is fine by me – The Greatest Showman is bursting with colour, joy and at times, infectious energy. There’s a real desire from the performers to inject life into the movie and it’s admirable to watch but, sadly, the movie is let down by its writing, lack of depth and, let’s face it, liberal evasion of facts. Historical inaccuracies can be overlooked (and have been many times before) but when it’s a biopic/drama about a particular person – loosely based or not - then it becomes fantasy fiction when the essence of the person is amended so heavily. That’s not to say Jackman’s interpretation is bad, far from it (he’s very good), it’s just not entirely true to the character of Barnum – his darker traits are ignored/revised for a cheerier product.
Jackman clearly relishes the role he plays and has the natural charisma and exuberance to really sell the showmanship of Barnum – you can almost feel the joyous release each time he bursts into song. It’s a great performance by a fine actor – think The Prestige but grander. As for the rest of the cast, they suffer from frustratingly underdeveloped characters, frequently leading to a lack of emotional payoff when the movie tries calling for it. The writers attempt to expand with Efron and Zendaya (including some strained social commentary) but the rushed approach allows little for the characters to build upon. The always superb Michelle Williams is criminally underutilised throughout and the gang of oddities are allowed fleeting moments of exposition or centre stage. The cast all perform well and there’s nothing weak about them, but this certainly is Jackman’s movie.
Visually, The Greatest Showman is brimming with Broadway sheen - it’s built for the stage. The staging and set design seem to have been lifted directly from the boards and the movie wears it showmanship loud and proud (and so it should). The musical numbers were co-written by La La Land’s Benk Pasek and Justin Paul and it’s abundantly clear this movie is gunning for an Academy Award for Score and Original Song, it’s utterly gagging for it. Despite its Victorian-era roots, the songs are majorly contemporary and the majority are only so-so in terms of quality – The Greatest Show, This Is Me and Rewrite the Stars being the standout offerings. The actual dialogue is artificial, there’s a showmanship to every line or retort which becomes tiresome after a while, though the nature of the movie (…being a musical) pretty much calls for it.
With all that said, The Greatest Showman works best if you don’t take it too seriously. It’s certainly not the worst movie of the year, or anywhere close to it, but it is a missed opportunity. All the verve, spectacle and music can’t cover for flagging dialogue, poor development/depth and a generally MOR story. Jackman shines in the role he has been campaigning for, but unfortunately, he is let down by the majority of the movie. At times infectious and fun, at other times middling and tedious, The Greatest Showman is a mixed bag that will thrill some and estrange others.
January 2nd 2018