In “The Greatest Showman,” we’re introduced to a gorgeous silhouette rather than a character. “Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for,” croons the scarlet-clad titular suavely ring-master, with scant to none the stage jitters that the very best showmen share. That’s due to it that beyond being an adept showman, P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is also a deft ad man, entrepreneur, and all-around hoodwinker—in short, a charlatan, perhaps the best in American history. Had Barnum lived in our age of wide-eyed, sweat-dribbling startups, he’d live in the person of a tech founder whose enthusiasm makes one barf out their large intestines and money to hop on board on whatever he has got his heart set to.
Like him, the real P.T. Barnum is accomplished. But also barely the for-the-people, rocking-his-fedora, sizzle-hot daddy of a hero Michael Gracey’s trying to sell us on. The real P.T. Barnum, though doubtless imperfect, bears more detail than a silhouette, and therefore deserves more. Here is a man, the seed of American exceptionalism itself, whose legacy will have sorrily morphed into three dreaded letters in the sorry age of TMZ night-crawling. “You clearly have a flair for show business,” he compliments uptown theater producer Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), telling that he’s yet to know about show business because he “just invented it.”
There, at a bar, is the portentous engineer of the entertainment circus we’re all living in. In his grave, I imagine the real P.T. Barnum, feeling accomplished, proudly un-sorry, laughing as hard as the biceps bulging through Hugh Jackman’s shirt. “The American Dream right here,” I can hear him cackle.
The story in this musical biopic—if we must call it that, a “biopic”—is the sort of fabricated bullshit that Barnum himself will sell with searing passion and an ear-to-ear smile. Instead of presenting a tapestry of political complication and moral ambiguity, the film gives us an idealized, slicked-back version of Barnum, which Jackman charges with boundless electricity. It’s one of those roles that fit like gloves—or, ahem, excuse me, adamantium claws. As paper boy Barnum, Jackman is magnetic. He’d say “nobody ever made a difference by being like everyone else” and you hold onto his words, you believe him, unphased by what his true intentions are.
Even the most charismatic fall for it, too. In an inevitably homoerotic scene between Barnum and Carlyle, Jackman beckons to Efron and warbles that he’ll take him “to the other side.” What that means is beyond this text, but paint me unsurprised should days from now fan fiction writers break Reddit threads like they did for Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth in the “Thor” movies. The Swedish songstress Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson, whose voice to my knowledge is as cut as her facial features but was oddly and perhaps serendipitously dubbed over with that of Loren Allred) isn’t able to resist, eventually saying yes to Barnum’s offer to manage her shows in a disagreeable attempt at getting the adoration of high society viewers. Heck, even the ostensibly sternest of critics (ably played by Paul Sparks) gets soft on him too.
Which brings us to the chief of all its flaws—which, no matter how scathing, we’re moved to overlook: for a film that belts about individuality and inclusion, “The Greatest Showman” seems to bench its wonderful oddities by the wayside. Keala Settle’s Lettie Lutz, for instance, seems to exist to be Barnum’s ostensibly philanthropic work by plucking outcasts and turn them into “renegades in the ring.” Whatever defiant spirit the film’s anthemic “This Is Me” conjures is lost in the ineffably flat, rags-to-riches, this-is-what-America-is-built-upon story about the world’s most fascinating farce of a man. Similarly, both Michelle Williams’ and Fergusons’ characters, the real P.T. Barnum’s wife and supposed seductress, are reduced to just those: a doggedly loyal wife and an unknowing mistress.
Ultimately, what’s great about this musical biopic is that it’s a musical. The film’s discordantly contemporary tunes (thanks are owed to Justin Paul and Benj Pasek of “La La Land” fame) anchor legitimately astounding moments. Such is “Rewrite the Stars,” an unabashedly Disney-like track with a “Moulin Rogue!” romanticism and sensuality peppered as suspension for when you reach some of its frustratingly schmaltzier lyrics. Still, it’s an incredible sequence, featuring aerial choreography and the envy of all men and women: Efron’s upper body strength and Zendaya’s glistening skin. A strong contrast to the film’s gaudy, obscenely colorful production is “Never Enough,” a powerful ballad about the gaping void that fame, money, and power leave.
Somewhere in the auditorium is Barnum, eyes sparkling poignantly. He smiles giddily.
I doubt he gets the message.
The Greatest Showman
2018 / Musical, Drama / US
Direction: Michael Gracey
Screenplay: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle