You’ll be surprised to know this, but I didn’t go to The Greatest Showman with my 360 windmill dunk prepped and practiced (I look more like the basketball than Vince Carter, that’s for sure), but I actually like musicals quite a bit and was willing to give this one a shot.
Sure, the songs I heard in the trailer weren’t great, and it’s weird when the screening is at 10 in the morning on a Sunday and I’m not allowed to write about it until an unspecified time in the future, but hey! It’s got Hugh Jackman in it! It was shot by Seamus McGarvey, who works with people like Joe Wright and Lynne Ramsay on the regular, so at least it might look good!
But boy, The Greatest Showman is just not good at all. It’s hard to watch at times, and it feels about three hours longer than its hour-and-40-minute runtime would suggest. It isn’t the worst movie of the year by far — you’ll have to be far skeezier to beat Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy or far smarmier to beat Alexander Payne’s Downsizing — but it’s pretty damn close.
I’m not going to even bother with a plot summary, given how little The Greatest Showman adheres to the actual life story of PT Barnum, eschewing the bits and pieces of his life that were truly commendable (the man was an ardent abolitionist at the time of the Civil War, and argued for Universal Suffrage at a time in which it was not a popular opinion) and the ones that weren’t (say, his staging of minstrel shows). It replaces those little biographical details with a generic pauper-to-desk-jockey story, as he looks to give his wife (Michelle Williams) the life of plenty she had when she lived in her father’s house. So how do you get rich quick like this in America?
Well, you find an oppressed and outcast group of people and exploit them until you’re full up with cash money. Sure enough, we get a group of ragtag “freaks” who are pitched on the Circus idea by Barnum, and who come to see it as an opportunity to express themselves. Barnum’s partner, the invented character Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) even falls in love with one of them — a trapeze artist (Zendaya) — and it’s not played creepily at all! Again, the plot winds up being D.O.A., caused by blood loss from a thousand #problematic needles, but all of this might be excusable, at least while you’re watching it, if the musical numbers were good and its lead were properly cast.
It’s odd to say that Jackman is miscast in his own passion project, but it’s completely and totally true. His old-school Broadway charm and method is out of place in a movie that feels cloyingly modern, and nowhere is this more obvious than in his duet with Efron, a tried-and-true member of the Modern Musical Class. Compared to the High School Musical star, Jackman practically shouts his verses, and it’s as intensely off-putting as an Andrea Boccelli feature on a garden-variety Ed Sheeran track (whoops!).
You think the project would cater to his needs, given that he’s the most prominent member of the cast, but no dice, and there are moments where his voice sounds digitally manipulated, though that might just be a fault of the really odd sound mixing. Still, he’s Hugh Fucking Jackman, so he’s got a charismatic sweetness that radiates off the screen whenever he’s not singing. You believe that this man would love his wife and his daughters, and it’s possible to see the movie (still a hagiography but an entertaining one) that could have been with the talent assembled, had it not been for the shoddy songwriting.
The musical numbers are, to put it mildly, bad. They’re all terribly staged by first-time director Michael Gracey, who buries the lede (the assemble talent) in each song. Jackman and Williams’ big number at the start of the film, ends with a “clever” joke about how their dance between hung sheets on a rooftop is actually a metaphor for their fuckin’, and their voices have been altered beyond recognition. The performers’ song, the bombastic “No Apologies,” falls apart once the slightest reminder of the cruelty that these people faced from all corners, especially from each other, within the Circus.
Worst of all, Rebecca Ferguson’s sole feature in the film, the Adele-esque “Never Enough,” features some of the oddest lip-syncing you’ll see in the modern musical (the filmmakers chose Loren Allred to perform the song, which is odd given that Ferguson does have a background in music!), and it’s just so underwhelming in the context of the film — she’s playing Jenny Lynd, one of the greatest singers in recorded history, for Christ’s sake — that it robs Ferguson’s appearance of any dramatic quality. A forced pseudo-romance between her and Jackman never manages to cause the kind of dramatic tension that the filmmakers hope it will, because Jackman’s just too damn nice!
All of this is just odd, given that there already exists a Broadway musical about Barnum (hell, it’s named after the guy!) better suited to Jackman’s talents. He won a Tony for being Curly in Oklahoma, you guys, it’s not hard to keep him away from the fucking Coldplay soundalikes and keep him well-steeped in Broadway tradition. That musical, at least from a glance at the synopsis, adheres just a little closer to Barnum’s biography, as opposed to the empty hagiography that we’re given here, and it probably would have been just a bit more satisfactory in comparison.
If anything, it wouldn’t have given us the overproduced pop nonsense that we have here. But some will buy tickets to The Greatest Showman of course, drawn in by the cast and the marketing, and might walk out thinking that the circus was some sort of premium showcase for human expression. As Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.