As a storytelling venture, The Greatest Showman is like watching a movie play Heads or Tails, with its audience as the coin being flipped. On one hand, director Michael Gracey stages and executes a glut of impressive musical numbers, his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designers, art directors, and costume department working overtime to bring us a visually stunning treat for the senses. In telling the story of P.T. Barnum (played in the film by Hugh Jackman), the man who would create the concept of the circus as we know it, screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon certainly have rich material with which to work - a story set within the theatrical world of performance art, populated by characters ripped out of genuine history.
The film opens with a younger Barnum (Ellis Rubin), born into poverty but with a dream to escape it, falling in love with Charity (played as a woman by Michelle Williams and as a girl by Skylar Dunn) over the course of a song and eventually working for a shipping company. Barnum's job is lost as an act of God destroys the ships managed by the company, and he, his wife, and their daughters (played by Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely) are in danger of destitution. While entertaining the girls with a roughly assembled zoetrope, he is struck by an idea: an interactive museum involving the macabre, premised on the hypothesis that people like looking at the macabre because it fascinates them.
That idea eventually becomes a show starring people with physical and capable differences, such as a bearded woman of a certain size (played by Keala Settle), a tiny man with the stage name Tom Thumb (played by Sam Humphrey), and others, who are hired as performers, while Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a lauded playwright, is hired on as part owner. There is a lot of music involved in this, and though much of it is marred by overmixing the compositions (by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese) and drowning out the lyrics (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), the clear intention to get the audience to whistle or hum the songs on the way out of the theater ends up being the right impulse.
The songs oscillate between catchy (such as the number that bookends the film, which introduces Barnum at the front and sends the characters off at the back) and genuinely moving (One character's ballad begins as empowering, then, when the reprise hits later, becomes despairing as the character can barely keep her composure for an audience). The actors have a field day bringing these numbers to life, so yes, on one hand, there are the numbers and the arrangement of the production. On the other hand, there is a plot rather thinly connected by those numbers that consistently falls into either a pattern of formula or a bizarrely contradictory fable.
At the hollow heart of it is Barnum's journey from an unassuming man with a dream to one who operates a hellish slave troupe by hiring people who look different so that people with privilege can gaze and gawk at how different they are. Bicks and Condon seem to want to split the difference by not showing us much of the "performers" in their element and by a denouement in which they thank Barnum for all he's done. Real life is real life, while film is film, but while truth can be found in any medium, regardless of its adherence to history, it seems the screenwriters and Gracey have gone out of their way to evade the hard truth about the supposed hero of this story.
Barnum's successful profession, which includes hiring European opera singer Jenny Lind (Rachel Ferguson, strong as a woman the screenplay uses as a device before discarding unceremoniously), leaves his personal life in shambles, as his marriage slowly dissolves and a fire causes potential financial ruin. Phillip falls for Anne (Zendaya), a trapeze artist, but their relationship is frowned upon by his parents and society at large in a time where racial and class warfare was particularly intense. A theater critic (played by Paul Sparks) constantly calls into question the motive and sociological implications of Barnum's experiment.
That we end up siding with the theater critic on this issue is telling and, indeed, part of the problem with the movie's convictions. It feebly bleats the virtues of tolerance and vices of ignorance, but it pivots on the development of the character of Barnum, who puts on a show himself of tolerance but practices what is clearly bigotry. "Everybody's laughing at you, kid, so why not get paid," he declaratively asks one of his eventual performers before winning him over with a wink and some bald manipulation. The Greatest Showman cannot reconcile this con artistry, no matter how much energy it puts into giving us a great show.
Hugh Jackman (P.T. Barnum), Michelle Williams (Charity Barnum), Zac Efron (Phillip Carlyle), Zendaya (Anne Wheeler), Rebecca Ferguson (Jenny Lind), Keala Settle (Lettie Lutz), Sam Humphrey (Tom Thumb), Austyn Johnson (Caroline Barnum), Cameron Seely (Helen Barnum), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (W.D. Wheeler), Paul Sparks (James Gordon Bennett), Eric Anderson (Mr. O'Malley), Ellis Rubin (Younger P.T.), Skylar Dunn (Younger Charity).
Directed by Michael Gracey and written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon.
Rated PG (thematic elements including a brawl).
Released on December 20, 2017.