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‘The Greatest Showman’ not that great

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Musical has its moments, but mostly falls short

There are very few people who are ambivalent about the circus. You either dig it or you don’t; it’s one of those cultural institutions that isn’t really set up to allow much in the way of gray area.

It’s kind of the same thing with movie musicals – you either dig them or you don’t. You’re either into the idea of spontaneous outburst of singing and dancing or you aren’t.

And when you put the two together, well … that’s when you get something like “The Greatest Showman.” It’s something that could have had great appeal to fans of songs and circuses alike. Instead, despite an engaging lead performance from Hugh Jackman as the legendary P.T. Barnum and a handful of solid songs, the film likely won’t quite resonate with either group.

Jackman plays Barnum, whose hardscrabble youth has left him with a burning desire for success – both financially and socially. He marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams, “Wonderstruck”) and starts a family, though he initially struggles to give her and their children the life that he promises.

It all changes when he has the idea for a “Museum of Curiosities.” Initially filled with odd artifacts and examples of taxidermy, it falls flat at first. But when Barnum undertakes to put together a live show populated by “human curiosities,” he begins to find the success he craves.

The motley crew he assembles is headlined by the diminutive Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey, TV’s “Neighbours”), the golden-voiced and hirsute Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle, “Ricki and the Flash”) and the trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”). But even this success is not enough for Barnum – he has captured the imaginations of the working class, but he craves entry into the circles of the upper crust.

To that end, he recruits into the fold Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron, “The Disaster Artist”), a theatrical producer with family connections and a trust fund. It’s not long before Carlyle embraces his place in the circus – and finds himself drawn especially to Anne.

But Barnum can’t stop reaching – he winds up recruiting legendary opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, “The Snowman”) so that he can promote her very first tour of America. While that does gain him entry into the high-minded company that he craves, it winds up presenting a new set of problems that could potentially undermine everything he has worked so hard to build.

Ultimately, Barnum is forced to decide just how much fame and fortune is truly worth to him. The show must go on … but at what cost?

There’s plenty to like about “The Greatest Showman.” It’s a visually sumptuous movie, colorful and kinetic in a really engaging way. There are some spectacular production numbers, musical moments that achieve a feeling of massive scale that is really impressive to watch. First-time director Michael Gracey’s background is in visual effects, and it shows – he definitely has an eye for aesthetics.

However, his inexperience shows in other ways. There’s a paint-by-numbers vibe to the storytelling, though some of the blame can likely be placed at the feet of the screenwriters – the script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon doesn’t do anyone any favors as far as narrative flow is concerned.

The songs, courtesy of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of “La La Land” fame), are strong – “This is Me” in particular has gotten a fair amount of awards attention, but the truth is that they’re all solid. And in tandem with some large-scale production numbers, the musical side of things comes together well.

Jackman has got the charm wattage turned up to 11 as Barnum. He’s got broad shoulders and triple-threat chops to spare; he throws every trick in his bag at us. And for the most part, it works – there’s no denying that he gives a strong performance. The rest of the cast is a bit uneven, however. Michelle Williams has been better, though hers is a thankless part. Ferguson does her best with a role that makes little narrative sense. Efron and Zendaya are both very attractive and seem content to let their looks do the heavy lifting. Settle is a standout, but beyond her, the majority of the circus folks are one-dimensional; their differences are their sole characteristics.

And that’s the biggest problem with “The Greatest Showman.” There’s no nuance presented here; Barnum is depicted as a good-hearted and noble man, when history shows that it was a bit more complicated than that. We see tiny glimpses of his selfishness, but he’s presented largely as an altruist. Anyone who spends five minutes learning about the man knows better.

The idea that Barnum exploited these people for his own gain is paid lip service and then dismissed out of hand. Instead, we get a shining, virtuous ringmaster with only the most miniscule of personal flaws. And that’s just not Barnum was. Truth be told, a movie closer to the reality of the man would almost certainly have been more interesting.

“The Greatest Showman” has some brightly-colored production numbers, some catchy-as-heck songs and a strong lead performance from Jackman. But while those pros are significant, they simply don’t outweigh the many cons presented by this glossed-over trifle of fictionalized history.

[2.5 out of 5]

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