Hugh Jackman stars as legendary ringmaster and purveyor of hoaxes Phineas “P.T.” Barnum, whose dirt-poor upbringing gives way to an entrepreneurial spirit. Driven by an innate showmanship, cash-strapped Barnum whisks his long-time beloved – the aristocratic Charity (Michelle Williams, in a completely thankless role) – away from her rich, domineering father so the duo can be together while he pursues his dreams.
To say the couple lives modestly after marriage is an understatement – together with their young daughters, the Barnums live in a tiny, squalid apartment and are barely scraping enough money together to live when “Phin” schemes his way into a big bank loan, buys a decrepit museum of oddities and turns it into a (literal) freak show. He teams with wealthy producer Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron, looking very much like he fell into the 1840s by way of 2017) and before you can say, “It’s SHOWTIME!”, Barnum has a hit on his hands and plants the early seeds for what would one day become his iconic circus empire. Along the way, there are plenty of colorful characters, rousing anthems, and increasingly vitriolic haters who seem to want Barnum and his troupe drawn and quartered.
While the film rests squarely on Jackman’s shoulders and he does a fine job as the center of attention – energetic, three-dimensional, charming, funny, flawed and sympathetic, if a bit of a stretch to be believable as a guy in his 20s, then 30s – everyone else is basically relegated to distant also-rans as far as any kind of meaningful screen time is concerned. Most of all, the women of The Greatest Showman, who collectively get the biggest shaft in that regard.
Williams’ Charity is little more than a stereotypical doe-eyed supportive wife, whose sole purpose in the film seems to be to alternately adore or pine for her husband, usually through song. That’s it. She shows some spark early on, but her performance becomes totally bland and one note, which is a product of the role Williams is being asked to play, not her talent level.
Zendaya doesn’t fare much better as the black trapeze artist whose budding interracial romance with Phillip is considered scandalous for the time. She’s given little more than “mopey longing” and “disappointment” as character direction, and her Anne lacks any kind of fire or determination or conviction.
And Rebecca Ferguson is saddled with a completely confounding character, whose motivation (and purpose) is murky at best. Is she a villain? A love interest? Thrown in to add another wrench in the works? I still don’t know. Ferguson plays real-life Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, whom Barnum brings to America to great acclaim. In the film, she’s painted in broad strokes as a would-be homewrecker, but is she? And was the real Lind ever really responsible for any strife in the Barnums’ marriage? Dunno.
There are some other problems as Showman unspools, perhaps the most obvious being the weird and unconvincing CGI used to make already-tiny actor Sam Humphrey appear to be even smaller as Tom Thumb, Barnum’s show’s resident little person – it looks like he’s awkwardly walking on his knees throughout, and he occasionally appears then disappears from group musical numbers. Nevermind the terrible looping job, in which Humphrey’s natural speaking voice (and Aussie accent) is replaced with a freaky deep baritone that sounds like it belongs to someone in a B&W gangster flick. It’s awful. People around me were snickering each time he spoke.
Thing is, despite all these issues and perhaps fittingly, The Greatest Showman’s music somehow manages to save it. Just when the story gets a bit slow or Efron utters a line of dialogue so hokey that you kind of want to roll your eyes, a song erupts and suddenly everything is exciting again. Director Michael Gracey has a background in music videos, so it’s not surprising that he knows how to wrangle a great production number. And, I suppose, when it comes to movie musicals, the music really should be the most important component. And, on that level alone, Showman sings.