P.T. Barnum is a complex individual. A philanthropist, entrepreneur and phenomenally successful businessman who advertised and celebrated hoaxes with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which promoted, highlighted and exploited the talents and deformities of many, he’s arguably among the most intriguing figures in American history. He’s a huckster and a crook, a future politician and a man who is transparent about what he’s selling. Remind you of anyone? He gave employment, attention and exposure to several distinguished individuals, but usually it was at the cost of their pride and reputation. The life of P.T. Barnum is the foundation for a fascinating, nuanced story.
Such complexities, however, are ignored or diminished in “The Greatest Showman,” a glittery, glossy, aggrandized, vaudevillian and predictably showy musical biopic that’s sorely without any authentic depth. Perhaps that’s to be expected when bringing Barnum’s life story to the big screen. The man loved a good spectacle, and this movie is definitely not without it. But it’s not in service of anything thoughtful or meaningful. There’s heart, passion, and a lot of exuberance that’s easy to enjoy. But it’s missing honesty and humanity. It’s all show and little substance. Is it fitting? Sure. Is it satisfying? Not really.
A long-in-the-works passion project for Hugh Jackman, “The Greatest Showman” focuses squarely on the creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, molding Barnum’s tale into an American Dream fable-of-sorts coupled with songs and dancing. A poor-but-optimistic working man hoping to make his name, Barnum sets off to prove himself through the art and magic of what he likes to call “show business,” with his sympathetic wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), and his loving daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), at his side. The process proves laborious, but taking the advice of his youngest daughter, Barnum gives the world a show it has never seen before. The result is what’s known as “the circus,” a wondrous low-brow attraction presenting oddities and extravagances never before showcased for the general public. It’s an instant sensation, though one that doesn’t earn Barnum a great deal of respect in high-collar society, most notably earning the perpetual scoff of well-read critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks). Barnum tries to shrug it off, but he still has a need for acclaim.
Wooing the talented socialite Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and renowned singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to his cause, Barnum begins to gain more widespread appreciation. But it comes at the cost of his family life, and gradually he loses the respect of his underappreciated performers, which includes Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a trapeze artist whom Phillip is instantly smitten by. From there, Barnum must decide what he values more: the highly-sensationalized grandeur he’s created or the high class respect he desires. In the process of discovering what Barnum values most, there are many original songs performed by the talented cast.
A musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum isn’t necessarily a novel concept. 1980 Broadway show “Barnum” already beat “The Greatest Showman” to the punch. But much like last year’s “La La Land,” it’s a lively sensation to see an original studio musical on the big screen again. And this one isn’t afraid to belt its heart out. Michael Gracey makes his directorial debut here, and while “The Greatest Showman” isn’t nearly as confident as it should be, it’s certainly full of glitz and glamour. The life and legacy of P.T. Barnum gives Gracey, Jackman, screenwriters Bill Condon (this year’s “Beauty and the Beast“) and Jenny Bicks (“The Big C“) and songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (“La La Land”) the inspiration and invigoration they need to produce the biggest, brightest showcase they can. It’s a bright, colorful cinematic experience, one that prides itself in always going the extra mile. But it strains just a little too hard to please, as though the movie constantly needs to impress or dazzle us at every moment.
As exhilarating as the film can be, it’s also exhausting, strangely shallow and only periodically captivating. Part of the problem is that the story lacks real meat. This 105-minute biopic was either shaved of its weight or it was always meant to be an accessory piece for its soundtrack. And if the latter is the case, then the soundtrack is fine, if not quite great. Many songs sound too similar, and there are only a handful of truly show-stopping tunes. “This is Me” will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song; it’s basically gift-wrapped for that category. “Rewrite the Stars” is another good single, and “The Greatest Showman” is certainly a tune that demands your attention. “The Other Side,” meanwhile, is definitely, and quite easily, the best choreographed number in the entire production. But the rest of the soundtrack is interchangeable or unmemorable.
Ultimately, “The Greatest Showman” is only a fitfully entertaining, but there’s no faulting the performances. Jackman is a great screen presence, as per usual, while Efron gets welcomed back into the world of musicals with vigor. Williams gives another strong performance, and Zendaya is truly a born star. But this whole endeavor never becomes as bewitching as it should be. It’s never more than adequate, and while P.T. Barnum will go down as one of the most interesting men in history, this film won’t pull off the same feat. [C+]