PLOT A musical based on the life of circus impresario P.T. Barnum.
CAST Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Michelle Williams
RATED PG (mild violence)
BOTTOM LINE Jackman is a perfect fit to play the man who invented our notion of spectacle, but this is one unspectacular musical.
When circus impresario P.T. Barnum used the word “humbug,” it was a compliment, an adjective to describe the colorful hype that could sell a product. “The Greatest Showman,” an original movie musical starring Hugh Jackman as Barnum, wants to overflow with humbug, and it does — but more in the sense that Ebenezer Scrooge used the word.
A passion project for Jackman now that his Wolverine has moseyed into the sunset, “The Greatest Showman” presents itself as a celebration of the 19th century businessman who helped invent the very idea of “show business.” That suggests more than just a song-and-dance musical. It suggests a top-notch, gale-force, blow-your-hair-back extravaganza, the kind of thing Barnum spent his whole life trying to deliver. Instead, “The Greatest Showman” is absolutely, utterly so-so.
Characterized by Ashley Wallen’s slick but familiar-looking choreography and a slew of rock-ish songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the Oscar winners behind “La La Land”), this phenomenally O.K. musical seems determined never to soar, surprise or excite. It begins with Barnum as a dirt-poor kid (Ellis Rubin), moves quickly into his marriage to Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams) and then gives him a light-bulb moment: a museum and freak show! Thanks to some clever marketing (my favorite: bring a bad newspaper review for half-price admission), Barnum’s business takes off and makes him a wealthy man. (Glen Cove’s Woolworth Estate, which doubles as Barnum’s house, is one of several Long Island landmarks visible in the movie.)
What follows is an example of filmmakers imposing modern morality onto historical reality. (Bill Condon, of “Chicago,” wrote the screenplay with Jenny Bicks.) “The Greatest Showman” casts Barnum not as an exploitative businessman but as a champion of social outcasts like the dwarf Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and the bearded lady Lettie Lutz (an excellent Keala Settle). That idea never rings true. A forbidden romance between a high-society playwright (Zac Efron) and a black trapeze artist (Zendaya) further illustrates the social prejudices of the age, but those characters are fictional, so who cares? Another romantic subplot involving Barnum and the real-life opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), feels less than factual.
Thanks also to the stationary camerawork of first-time director Michael Gracey and the sepia-tone cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, “The Greatest Showman” stays in an artistic middle lane from start to finish. A little more humbug would have gone a long way.