Hugh Jackman makes a living playing a rage mutant with nasty claws. At heart, he’s a showman from the Mickey Rooney school of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
He couldn’t find a more appropriate gig than playing P.T. Barnum in a musical dedicated to the capitalist spirit.
“The Greatest Showman” smooths out Barnum’s rough edges, a process that left a mountain of sawdust behind. The film should have ditched the Barnum name and used it as inspiration for another, more lovable gent.
That’s the one Jackman brings to glorious life here. He’s helped by a gorgeous score from the folks who crafted “La La Land’s” music. Yes, the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are two for two, if you’re keeping count. They might single handedly revive the movie musical if given the chance.
Jackman is P.T. Barnum, a kindly huckster who wants to treat his bride, Charity (Michelle Williams), to the best of the best. That means he’ll have to cut an ethical corner or two and get tips from his doting daughters.
That’s precisely what happens, and before you can say “step right up” Barnum’s attractions are the talk of the town. It’s not hard to see why. He assembles a coterie of unconventional souls, from a bearded lady (Keala Settle) to a Tom Thumb-sized hero (Sam Humphrey).
Fame and fortune soon follow, but the class chip on Barnum’s shoulder remains. He keeps stretching, striving for more success, threatening both his business empire and his marriage.
Conservatives will cheer “The Greatest Showman” for its old school charms and its complex portrait of monogamy. Both jump off the screen in nearly every sequence. A bonus? Barnum repeatedly dresses down a journalist who clings to his personal narrative over what’s right in front of his face.
Ye olde Fake News?
Barnum’s marital vows are tested by Jenny Lind, an opera goddess played with grit and grace by Rebecca Ferguson. Her character belts out a show stopper mid-film that lives up to that description.
Then again, every musical number has its merits. First-time director Michael Gracey delivers a series of jaw-dropping visuals that could prop up the worst of numbers … not that any song here fits that description.Barnum repeatedly dresses down a cultural critic who clings to his personal narrative over what's right in front of his face.Click To Tweet
A rooftop scene early in the film, with Jackman and Williams moving between cascading sheets, is just one of many highlights. Williams needs more screen time, but she efficiently shows why Barnum would strive to make her happy.
So what’s missing?
The connective tissue, for starters. “The Greatest Showman” is such a theatrical experience you’ll pine for more meat, more attempts to unify the themes on technicolor display. We’re treated to lessons on hubris, accepting people for who they are and the power of the people (for better and worse).
We’ll get a thematic note one moment before another subplot arrives seconds later. A gentle love story between Barnum’s partner (Zac Efron) and a performer (Zendaya) is magical, but it’s simply one of a dozen elements fighting for our attention.
You’ll still be too dazzled to care.
Jackman keeps the story together with sheer will power. He’s always been versatile and charismatic, but it’s how he alternates between mischief and decency that makes Barnum wow us.
There’s something oh, so 21st century about the marginalized performers seeking respect if not adulation. Their bond with Barnum is another weak link, given his inconsistent appreciation for their hard work.
It’s not hard to imagine Red State types embracing the film for its limitless whimsy and traditional themes. Meanwhile Blue State audiences will cheer the message of acceptance embedded in the circus performers’ narrative.
Can’t we all just get along and cheer a movie musical once again? With “The Greatest Showman” we just might.
HiT or Miss: Who says they don’t make ’em like they used to? “The Greatest Showman” is as close to you’ll get to the glorious movie musical era.