Phineas T. Barnum never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but if he were alive to see The Greatest Showman, the thought might well cross his mind. This wannabe spectacle of showbiz razzmatazz turns out on delivery to be a stillborn fizzle, squandering the musical chops of leading man (and co-producer) Hugh Jackman, along with those of Zac Efron, Zendaya and others. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by the inexperienced and unready Michael Gracey, it purports to chronicle the life of Barnum (Jackman) as he scales the heights of 19th century show business.
The real P.T. Barnum was a fascinating character, but the movie has no interest in his real life and times, so there’s no point in itemizing its many fictions and anachronisms. Barnum made his name and early fortune by peddling hoaxes to a gullible public, and if nothing else, he might well have been amused by how The Greatest Showman tries the same scam.
The movie’s Barnum starts out as a poor tailor’s son (Ellis Rubin) flirting with Charity (Skylar Dunn), the daughter of one of his father’s wealthy customers. Like a pubescent version of James Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life, the kids sing about dreams in one of the many humdrum songs contributed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Young Barnum grows into Hugh Jackman and young Charity into Michelle Williams (who gets little to do but gaze winsomely at Jackman). Having lured Charity from wealth to poverty, Barnum vows to give her a life of splendor by following his instinct for showmanship. He buys a broken-down museum of dusty attractions, then populates it with oddities—a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a little person he dubs “Gen. Tom Thumb” (Sam Humphrey) and a trapeze act by an African-American brother and sister (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Zendaya). Barnum also hooks up with a blue-blooded aspiring playwright (Zac Efron as the fictional Phillip Carlyle) to promote his museum, and Carlyle immediately alienates his class by falling in love with Zendaya’s trapeze artist.
Finally, Barnum bids for respectability by importing the opera singer Jenny Lind. As Lind, Rebecca Ferguson is miscast and enormously unappealing, turning the pious “Swedish Nightingale” into an angular, hard-faced homewrecker and (in badly-dubbed singing by Loren Allred) a poor man’s Celine Dion.
None of Showman’s original score rises to the level of Pasek and Paul’s work on La La Land, and that’s a basic problem with the movie. You can’t make a first-rate musical out of third-rate songs. And when you have a cast of genuine musical talents, you do them no favor by larding their numbers over with so much glittering CGI that the audience is never sure what the performers are really doing and what was created by techies at computer consoles.
On the other hand, if you thought Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! was too sedate, too low-key, and not nearly vulgar or obnoxious enough, then The Greatest Showman may be the movie for you.