Courtesy of Fox
Show business is a never ending landscape, as is chasing the American dream. Many amateurs try and fail, and so did Phineas T. Barnum for a short while before catapulting his status as one of the most notorious ringleaders around the globe. It's the backdrop to "The Greatest Showman," a musical biopic that puts the spotlight on Barnum (played by the always reliable and consistent Hugh Jackman) and how the man assembled a crazy clan of strange and abnormal human beings to give audiences something they'd never seen before.
Before we get to his success, as any biopic must, it needs to show our hero at their lowest. And that's true here as the movie picks up with Barnum around the age of eight years old, falling in love with an unobtainable Charity (Michelle Williams), who comes from an extremely wealthy family, and her father scoffs at the idea of her marrying such a poor man. Of course, after a musical interlude or two, the pair grow up and fondly run off to start their family. It's not to long before Barnum loses his job, and is forced to reconsider the life he wants. Sure enough, he secures a loan for roughly $10,000 and starts his own shindig. First, it's a museum and then when tickets aren't selling enough, he puts feelers out for unusual and daring acts to compose a circus of sorts.
The folks he recruits are from all walks of life and come in any shape or size. There's a pair of death defying trapeze artists siblings named Anne and W.D Wheeler (Zendaya and Yhya Abdul-Mateen II); the world's shortest man Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey): "The Irish Giant" Mr. O'Malley (Eric Anderson): The Bearded Lady, Lettie Lutz (Keala Sette); and "The World's Fattest Man!" (Daniel Everidge). Most of the show, in the beginning, doesn't sit kindly with the townsfolk, often sparking protest and outcry for, what they call, "freaks" taking over their town.
Except, sooner, the crowds who enjoy the performances start to outweigh the negative spectators. And then the proverbial plot clichés start to compile like a knock of the old top hat. Zac Efron shows up midway as Producer Phillip Carlyle, who eventually becomes a partner with Barnum and to add a spruce that feels unnecessary, Rebecca Ferguson makes headway playing famed European opera singer Jenny Lind (except, when she finally does sing, it's not opera).
The main issue with "The Greatest Showman" has nothing to do with the toe tapping musical numbers that, often, are staged exceptionally well. First time director Michael Gracey, has an eye for the flashy (in the vein of Baz Luhrmann's much better "Moulin Rouge".) The issue is that while the "La La Land" and "Dear Evan Hansen" scribes Benj Pasek and John Debney infuse the movie with a pulpy, somewhat poppy, soundtrack - it doesn't drive the plot as well as it should. Forcing a relative mix bag. The song and dance really outweigh any semblance of a narrative that tries desperately to infuse old fashion values that seemingly feel misplaced with the musical tunes.
Not to mention, I didn't think it was wrong of me to expect a spectacular finale that would bring the house down. Instead, the ending felt concocted and spliced together to tie up loose ends so quickly. I was rather caught off guard the movie ended so blatantly. Unlike "La La Land" where the music was used to enhanced the characters surroundings and the plot, here it can't rise above just being dazzling. Williams also isn't given much to do other than smile sweetly at her husband's success, and the subplot involving Efron and Zendaya is a good example of where "The Greatest Showman" works overtime, forcing us to believe this relationship that is already realistic, except it has to remind us that she's black and he's white. A testament to the era which this took place yes, but at times it teeters on the edge of overboard.
But "The Greatest Showman" hardly wasn’t interested in testing those focal points anyway. So I have no qualms that folks looking for songs that offer escapism will find them in the picture. I know I did. In fact, I've had the soundtrack on repeat for weeks leading up to the release. And this cast works ferociously. Bringing the perfect amount of choreography and catchy songs to the mainstream. I would just warn the masses not to walk in this movie expecting a showstopper, rather a decent film where the shiny lyrics offer more depth than the story behind them. B-