“The Greatest Showman” is merely a series of production numbers strung together with the thinnest of plots.
Big and flashy, it looks like it’s going to be a “Les Miserables”-level musical. Instead, it’s just an opportunity for composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to prove they can write pop hits in addition to Broadway standards.
Hugh Jackman belts with the best of them, but it’s Keala Settle as the bearded lady in Barnum’s museum of oddities who gets the best showcase. She lets loose with “This is Me,” an anthem to being different that seems ideal for the next Oscar broadcast.
But there’s little, if any, backstory on any of the folks who populate the showman’s museum. Instead, they’re just backup singers to Jackman.
Apparently, Barnum’s status as the son of a tailor wasn’t enough for his future father-in-law, so he vowed to become someone. That meant creating the “circus” (as a critic called it) and drawing folks to a theater just made for all kinds of acts.
If you can call it that, there's a subplot about a rich guy (Zac Efron) falling for an aerialist (Zendaya) despite raised eyebrows from his peers.
Directed by Michael Gracey, “The Greatest Showman” has pretensions of being another “Moulin Rouge” but it never quite achieves the creativity of Baz Luhrmann’s work.
Much, in fact, is put in Jackman’s hands, forcing him to propel a propeller-less craft to some kind of height. While he’s very good with song and dance moments (he looks a lot like Justin Timberlake in several of them), he can’t get off the runway with the relationship drama. In addition to the tension with the father-in-law, he’s at odds with his wife (an underused Michelle Williams) who thinks he’s up to no good with singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who comes into the picture three-fourths of the way in. She’s supposed to give Barnum credibility among folks who think he’s just a huckster. So, he takes her on the road and, sure enough, a move here, a touch there and the two are written about as having an affair. Whether it’s true doesn’t matter. It just drives a wedge between him and his wife and pushes him to remember what counts.
Plenty of songs spell all this out time and again. The music is good, even though it doesn’t quite fit with the tone or time frame of the story it’s illustrating. Clearly, any of the songs could be covered by a pop star and sell.
While “Greatest Showman” is short, it seems like it’ll never end. Because Gracey doesn’t go beyond the surface of anything, he doesn’t tell us anything a Google search couldn’t.
An old Broadway musical (called “Barnum”) accomplished more and provided a sense of the circus he created. Adapting that might have been a better move for Gracey (and Jackman). This is like a highlight reel.
All we come away with is Settle’s star turn. Watch her bring down the house and you’ll long for a sequel that tells the bearded lady’s story.