“The Greatest Showman” is the dumbest movie.
You can hardly describe a bombastic musical biography of circus promoting bamboozle artist P.T. Barnum as being long-anticipated. Nevertheless it has arrived in far-from-satisfying form. “Long-avoided” seems to be how the film will be represented from now on. As you watch, you have no clue as to why it was even made.
The film gives us one of the more talented and engaging film actors around, Hugh Jackman, as Barnum, an outrageous and colorful con man. And right there, at the concept stage, we have a million reasons to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”
Barnum is hardly a household name today, largely because what he did to become a legend in the mid-19th century is deeply offensive to modern sensibilities. Barnum got the paying masses of his day through the doors of his museums and circus by inhumane exploitation of animals and touting people with peculiar genetic conditions as wild and exotic marvels. Let’s not even get into Joice Heth, the elderly slave he purchased in 1835 to pretend she was the 161-year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington.
Pretty tawdry stuff, but with the amiable Jackman in the role, Phineas comes off as a lovable rogue with a heart of gold. From the opening scene on, he’s presented as a singing, dancing sensation, turning every circus tent, bar and city street he enters into his stage. I suppose this conceit works best for viewers who know the least about the man. For those in the know, it’s “Springtime for Hitler” territory.
And it’s not particularly well-choreographed razzmatazz, at that. Director Michael Gracey follows the winking anachronisms of “Chicago” and “Moulin Rouge,” but not as well. Trying to be hip and contemporary, it is all kaleidoscope explosions of colors, overamped music, dance troupes and flashy digital effects in a period context. Each frame is cranked up, energetic to the point of frenzy. The editing is so rapid-fire — most images hold for a second or less — that it seems relentlessly abrupt, as if it’s engineered to conceal the dancers’ broad and obvious gestures. This may be the most overproduced music video ever released.
As for the story, well, what story? Young Barnum (Ellis Rubin) survives a street urchin beginning, falls in love with pretty, rich girl Charity and vows to win her one day. Cut to the young lad returning to her mansion’s door all grown up (Jackman, looking every day of 49, and then some). Oddly, Charity (Michelle Williams, a fresh-faced ingénue of just 37) doesn’t question his age. This is useful to the film because the two daughters she rapidly delivers (Cameron Seely and Austyn Johnson) don’t mature a week as the story rockets years ahead.
As fine a dramatic actress as she is, Williams is deeply miscast in a musical role, and she always seems to be a step or two away from Jackman in terms of their romantic bond. More convincing in every sense are Zac Efron as the junior partner in Barnum’s growing entertainment enterprise and Zendaya as the trapeze artist who triggers scandal as his lover. They act their roles with ease, sing and dance with solid teamwork and embrace with convincing chemistry. The only problem is that their forbidden interracial romance feels like a shamelessly easy trope, too on the nose to merit our attention.
Top-acting accolades go to Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, who stole the show from Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.” Here she plays Jenny Lind, the most popular female opera singer of the 19th century, whom Barnum signed to perform 150 concerts across the United States. She’s presented here as a romantic rival to Charity, and she would be a hard contender to beat.
In a film peppered with performances that are a bit of a letdown, Ferguson is exhilarating, adding a presence that gives the film its only ecstatic moments as she sings solo in concert halls and brings every house down. Of course she does. No one else in the film has her mettle as a performer. The whole enterprise could have worked better if she and Jackman were the focus. Too bad they’re not.
Musicals less creative than “La La Land” are a hard sell in this day and age, and “The Greatest Showman” seems harder to peddle than most.