The sawdust and sequins are laid on thick, the period flashbulbs pop and the champagne flows in The Greatest Showman, yet this ersatz portrait of American big-top tent impresario P.T. Barnum is all smoke and mirrors, no substance. It hammers pedestrian themes of family, friendship and inclusivity while neglecting the fundaments of character and story. First-time director Michael Gracey exposes his roots in commercials and music videos by shaping a movie musical whose references go no further back than Baz Luhrmann. And despite a cast of proven vocalists led with his customary gusto by Hugh Jackman, the interchangeably generic pop songs are so numbingly overproduced they all sound like they’re being performed off-camera.
First, a word about the music: The songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a fast-rising team who wrote lyrics for the tunes in La La Land; they composed the charmingly retro score for the musical adaptation of A Christmas Story and penned the affecting emo balladry in the Tony-winning Broadway smash, Dear Evan Hansen. Clearly, these guys can write, and in a variety of genres.
The mandate of Pasek and Paul with this long-gestating project, however, appears to have been to come up with accessible pop songs that drag the mid-19th-century story into the here and now. One number after another follows the same derivative template — from the hushed start through the first wave of emphatic instrumentation, building into an all-out explosion of triumphal, extra-loud chorus expressing minor variations on standard-issue themes of self-affirmation. They all sound like bland imitations of chart hits by Katy Perry or Demi Lovato or Kelly Clarkson. Catchy, like Chlamydia.
What the personality-free songs seldom do though is advance the story or deepen our connection to the characters, which means they fail in the most basic job requirement of musical numbers. I started actively dreading the arrival of another song, never a good feeling in a movie musical.
In addition to various screen treatments, the colorful life of Phineas Taylor Barnum was the subject of a 1980 circus-styled Broadway musical called Barnum — not a first-rate show but an entertaining one and a robust star vehicle, in which Cy Coleman’s signature strutting melodies were ideally suited to a central character who was all about dazzling presentation. With his effortless charisma, jaunty swagger and winning smile, Jackman was born to play that role. But like everyone else here, he’s given too little space to inhabit, let alone create a three-dimensional character. Mostly, he’s a handsome prop in a gaudy spectacle that’s no more real than the CG lions leaping about in the finale.
Scripted by veteran TV writer Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City) and Bill Condon from a story by Bicks, the movie opens with a hint of Great Expectations. The cheeky young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) accompanies his tailor father (Will Swenson) to the palatial home of well-heeled client Mr. Hallett (Fredric Lehne), a joyless snob who doesn’t take kindly to the lowly tradesman’s boy flirting with his precious daughter Charity (Skylar Dunn).
Exposition is swept up in a single song, “A Million Dreams,” in which Phineas and Charity steal childhood moments together in a ghostly abandoned mansion, before blossoming into teenagers. Along the way, P.T. is orphaned. Michelle Williams steps in as the grown-up Charity, while Jackman’s Barnum finds employment with the railroad and returns to claim her hand in marriage. They celebrate by dancing on what looks like a backlot rooftop amid curtains of laundry, against a painted sky; before the song is over, they have two lovely daughters. It’s all so breathless and giddy that instead of flesh-and-blood protagonists, we get familiar cardboard cutouts — the plucky poor kid propelled by drive and imagination, and the self-possessed rich girl who answers only to her heart.
After his initial attempt to draw crowds to a museum of wax figures, taxidermy and assorted other curios fails to take off, Barnum seizes on the idea of authentic human oddities. The real P.T. Barnum’s famed exhibits included such exploitative attractions as the African-American slave Joice Heth, whom the impresario advertised as the 161-year-old “mammy” of George Washington. In this sweetened, semi-fictionalized version, he’s like Tod Browning by way of Mother Teresa, collecting “freaks” unloved by their own parents and welcoming them into a surrogate family where they could feel less alone.
This is territory that co-writer Condon explored more satisfyingly in his unjustly short-lived 2014 reworking of the failed Broadway musical Side Show. But the warmth and unity of that community of carnival outsiders are missing here. (This might have been a very different movie had Condon directed.) Only the pint-sized Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey) and “bearded lady” Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) get significant dialogue or screen time. The rest — a giant, a fat man, Siamese twins, a hairy “dog boy,” an albino and other random exotics that could pass for contemporary Brooklyn hipsters of indeterminate gender — are employed like extras in a Lady Gaga video. That’s also pretty much the model for Ashley Wallen’s aggressive choreography — all power stomps and furious turns, with scarcely a moment of grace.
Amid this overcrowded blur of sketchily drawn characters, a second couple materializes — a youthful, pretty pair to get the preteens swooning. Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) is an upper-class New York theatrical producer roped in by Barnum to bring legitimacy to his business endeavors. Phillip falls in love at first sight with Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), half of an African-American duo of sibling trapeze artists. The frowning of high society on a romance that crosses racial lines causes some awkward hesitation on Phillip’s part, but from the moment these two do aerial rope tricks together while singing “Rewrite the Stars,” their fate is sealed.
Conflict, such as it is, comes in predictable form from the damning coverage of starchy theater critic James Bennett (Paul Sparks), so turned off by Barnum’s brand of popular entertainment he calls it a “circus,” which sticks; from an unruly mob of potato-faced Irish bigots, enraged by the Oddities; and from a threat to Barnum’s marriage, when he sets out to extend the fame of celebrated opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) from Europe to America.
This being a musical unshackled from its time period, Jenny of course sings yearning power pop with the same processed, disconnected sound as everyone else. Nonetheless, she brings tears to Barnum’s eyes and earns Bennett’s respect. And this being a family film without even a flicker of sexual tension, the interactions of Phineas and Jenny while on tour remain quite chaste, despite the “Swedish Nightingale” declaring her love for him.
The fact that none of this ever acquires much dramatic urgency, even when the circus is torched and lives hang in the balance, is no fault of the cast. The actors do what they can with roles that are barely more than outlines and pre-programmed character arcs. The busy presence of six credited editors might also have something to do with it, suggesting that the story has been cut to ribbons in favor of the assaultive song-and-dance interludes.
Jackman seems incapable of giving an unappealing performance, but there’s just no texture to his role. Barnum early on owns the label “Prince of Humbugs,” literally wearing it on a hat, which indicates the real subject’s renown for hype and fakery. But the worst we see him do is pad an already corpulent man to make him larger, or put a massively tall guy on stilts to, ahem, heighten the effect. The script so sanitizes and simplifies the flamboyant showman that you wonder how anyone could possibly object to what he’s selling.
Ferguson has a tender moment or two, but the roles of Williams and Efron are on the thin side. Of the secondary characters, Zendaya registers strongest, bringing touching sensitivity to her handful of scenes, and looking fabulous in her pink performance wig. Broadway recruit Settle, with her leather lungs, also makes the most of her screen time, leading a big anthemic number about celebrating your uniqueness called “This is Me,” which is basically “I Am What I Am” and “Born This Way” put through a blender.
Director Gracey, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Nathan Crowley and costumer Ellen Mirojnick douse everything in such a sparkly modern gloss that the historical locations might as well be studio sets and the story of an American showbiz pioneer becomes just another razzle-dazzle cliche. This is a movie that works way too hard at its magic, continually prompting us with insistent music cues to feel excitement that just isn’t there. If P.T. Barnum had delivered entertainment this flat to his public, the name would have long been forgotten.
Production companies: Laurence Mark, Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Paul Sparks, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely
Director: Michael Gracey
Screenwriters: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon; story by Bicks
Producers: Laurence Mark, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping
Executive producers: James Mangold, Donald J. Lee Jr., Tonia Davis
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Nathan Crowley
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Music: John Debney, John Trapanese
Songs: Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Editors: Tom Cross, Robert Duffy, Joe Hutshing, Michael McCusker, Jon Poll, Spencer Susser
Choreographer: Ashley Wallen
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield
Rated PG, 105 minutes