“The Greatest Showman” — a musical about 19th century circus pioneer P.T. Barnum — is a hot mess. First-time feature director Michael Gracey taps into his visual effects background to create a feast of style, spectacle, song and sexiness, the latter brought to us by a pair of dashing leading men in Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron.
While the movie is grand in scale, the script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon sticks to the early days of the Phineas Taylor Barnum (a.k.a. the man who invented show business). It’s a cursory telling, predicated on biopic cliches: The early struggle, the rise to the top, accompanied by the obligatory montage of performance and press clippings, the fall from grace, the rise from the ashes capped off with final-act redemption.
Indeed, the tale is familiar, but what “The Greatest Showman” has up its sleeve are proven song-and-dance dudes in Jackman (Broadway’s “Oklahoma!” “Les Misérables”) and Efron (“Hairspray,” “High School Musical”). Together they possess an effervescence and charm strong enough to overcome a rote script. Plus, there’s the swoon-worthy music from composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Oscar-winning team behind last year’s gem, “La La Land.” Ellen Mirojnick’s sublime costumes are the cherry on top.
Per usual with musicals, the narrative doesn’t matter a lick in “The Greatest Showman” — it’s all about seeing Jackman (“Logan”) and Efron (“Neighbors”) shake a leg. And when they do, I dare you not to smile. You can’t take your eyes off their pretty faces.
The movie recently grabbed three Golden Globe nominations, including Best Motion Picture for Musical or Comedy, Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical or Comedy for Jackman as well as Best Original Song for the film’s inspiring anthem “This Is Me” — which just might be this season’s “Let It Go.”
The film also stars Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife, Charity. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson plays tempting opera singer Jenny Lind. Zendaya (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”) portrays Anne Wheeler, a trapeze artist who’s caught the affection of Efron’s Phillip Carlyle, a high society playboy turned performer in Barnum’s circus. Their gorgeous aerial duet, “Rewrite the Stars,” is a showstopper.
Themes of tolerance and inclusion are explored through Barnum’s circus family of “oddities,” from Lettie Lutz, a.k.a. The Bearded Lady (Keala Settle) to 7-foot-plus tall Lord of Leeds (Daniel Everidge) to the midget Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey).
Barnum is characterized as a dreamer who refuses to conform to what the world expects. Jackman plays the part with energy and verve. What happens, though, is that the movie comes to a dead halt whenever it concentrates on what’s happening when the music stops. Namely, Barnum’s crumbling family life (Williams delivers a rare “meh” performance). The story also gets caught up in Barnum’s futile efforts to impress his priggish in-laws. They’ll always see him as a pauper who made money off a “freak show.” Foolishly, the script also sends Barnum on the road, removing him from the main action for a stretch.
All its cliches and old-fashioned sentiment about self-acceptance aside, “The Greatest Showman” is balm for the senses, a whirling dervish of a musical that is perfect for this time of year. So, step right up.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“The Greatest Showman”
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle.
(PG for thematic elements including a brawl.)