Just about every moment in “The Greatest Showman” is dripping with corny, cheesy and shameless sentiment.
No kidding, there were times when I rolled my eyes with all the subtlety of a round-faced emoji. But then I’d realize my foot was tapping to the catchy tunes, at which point I’d just acknowledge I was thoroughly enjoying myself, despite all cynical instincts.
Directed by Michael Gracey, and featuring songs from the immensely talented duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Oscar winners for “La La Land,” Tony winners for “Dear Evan Hansen”), “The Greatest Showman” has the look and feel of a Broadway hit adapted for the big screen.
This is an original work, inspired by the life of the legendary 19th-century promoter P.T. Barnum, who was devoted to finding new and creative ways to attract a crowd – even if it meant stretching the truth and inventing narratives.
It’s an easy casting decision to have Hugh Jackman play Barnum, given Jackman’s credentials as a Broadway performer.
“The Greatest Showman” opens with Jackman/Barnum in splashy splendor, center stage. Barnum sings: “It’s everything you ever want, it’s everything you ever need, and it’s right in front of you. … This is where you wanna be!” And 10 days after seeing the movie, as I type these words, I don’t stand a chance of NOT hearing that tune (titled “The Greatest Show”) all over again. It’s the first of at least a half-dozen addictive numbers. As the music fades, Barnum finds himself alone onstage. Cue the flashback and the real start of the story.
After a heavy-handed sequence in which the young and impoverished P.T. (Ellis Rubin) first sets eyes on the privileged, but sweet, Charity (Skylar Dunn) and they instantly fall in love, we flash forward a dozen years or so, with Jackman now playing P.T. and Michelle Williams as Charity. (OK, fine, they’re no more believable as 20ish lovers than Robert Redford and Glenn Close in “The Natural,” but it’s not long before the story moves ahead another 10 years and we can go with it.)
Through the years, as the family barely survives, Charity remains supportive of P.T. – and just when all hope seems dashed, P.T. comes up with the mad scheme to showcase the outcasts, the “freaks” of the world. And it works!
We rarely go more than 10 minutes without the characters breaking into song – and not in the “live singing” style of “Les Miserables,” but in a manner that makes it clear Jackman et al. are lip-syncing to previously recorded material. When it’s a big production number highlighting dance moves and group singing, that’s not an issue. When it’s an intimate moment with just two performers, it’s an issue. Still, there’s not a clunker in the entire soundtrack.
Even after P.T. achieves success and fame, he yearns to be accepted. To that end, he brings the famous Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to the States, ignoring his responsibilities as he devotes all his attention and finances to her American tour.
Zac Efron, who’s kind of a mini-Jackman (although he still has a long way to go to match Jackman’s total skill set), is terrific as Phillip Carlyle, a to-the-manor-born type who risks becoming an outcast when he partners with P.T. Given the world in which he was raised, Phillip must decide if he’ll take an even bigger risk when he falls in love with Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a black trapeze artist.
My favorite number in “The Greatest Showman” is when the bearded lady (Keala Settle) leads the charge after the “freaks” find themselves on the outside looking in; instead of slipping into the shadows, they respond with a defiant, strength-in-numbers, badass song of affirmation.
“The Greatest Showman” ends up scoring some very timely social arguments.