The Greatest Showman movie star cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson
The Greatest Showman movie director: Michael Gracey
The Greatest Showman movie rating: 2.5 stars
The biggest charge thrown at P T Barnum, the American showman known for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, was that he was a fraud, who sold fraud. What can you call a film about his life — no less than a cheerful musical — that colours all the greys out, that marginalises all the people he exploited, that drowns out all the questions his life raises in song and dance, to give us a man who is a loving husband, a doting father, a dreamer, and, to top all fakes, a believer in giving every person a chance?
But, as Jackman’s Barnum argues in the film, “hyperbole isn’t the worst crime one can commit”. And for all the problems with the film, it isn’t The Greatest Showman’s worst crime either. Where this film, with some talented star wattage, completely flops is in living up to any of its exalted claims. Of showmanship, of storytelling, of being glorious (a word that comes up often), or of even “a million dreams”.
In the most generic sense, a boy born of extreme poverty has a rich girl called Charity sincerely love and marry him (played as the older woman by Williams), has two lovely girls in quick succession, dreams of putting up a show all his life, stumbles upon a museum of curiosities on sale, and then decides to go chasing odd people used to being laughed at to put on display inside. Since the filmmaker perhaps thought Jackman may not draw in the younger audiences, a rich, attractive partner is acquired over the course of a drink, who also agrees for some reason to join his venture (hence enter Efron). And since nothing works like an inter-race romance, this richer partner falls for an African-American trapeze artist (the actress-singer Zendaya) in Barnum’s troupe.
The most interesting person by far in the film is Lettie, the woman singer with facial hair in Barnum’s troupe. If not the 22-year-old dwarf who used to hide out in his mother’s home. We also have Siamese twins, a man who is billed as “the fattest man on Earth”, and an assortment of other people quickly dismissed as “freaks”. However, the film has no time for any of them, except propping them up once in a while to form a favourable backdrop for another episode in Barnum’s life. Lettie especially is given the shortest shrift, despite delivering the film’s most passionate and kickass song, This Is Me.
Instead, we spend the longest time on the sappy romance between Barnum and Charity, and much later on his insipid longing for an opera singer (Ferguson) he brings in from Europe to lend his circus a more respectable air.
Even the battle Barnum constantly fought, of being an outcast in high society as circus was only visited by the low-brow, and of taking on critics who viewed him as morally repugnant (one of them played by the as tight-lipped Paul Sparks, of Tom Yates fame from House of Cards), is never explored to any satisfactory end. Gracey, a commercial director and visual effects artist, is clearly more confident staging the various dance sequences, and keeps falling back on them.
These eventually remain the only high notes in the life of a man, who clearly would have known how to stage a better show.