How do you cast a virtuoso Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, spare no expense in production values, add a score by Oscar (La La Land) and Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) winners Ben Pasek and Justin Paul and still end up with the shrill blast of nothing that is The Greatest Showman? Ask first-time director Michael Gracey, who cut his teeth on commercials and music videos without ever mastering the crucial knack of building snippets of musical comedy and drama into a satisfying whole.
As scripted by TV writer Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City, The Big C) and Oscar winner Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), the film pivots around what should be a foolproof central character: Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891). This master showman is credited with the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He never said it, but he sure acted like he did. Barnum built a career – he later founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus – out of his museum of freaks – General Tom Thumb, Siamese twins, a giant, a bearded lady – whose afflictions he exaggerated or outright faked for fun and profit. If the tall man needs stilts, so be it. Even in his poverty years, stuck in an office job, Barnum promised a dazzling life for his wife, Charity (a stranded Michelle Williams), and their two daughters. Cue the song, “A Million Dreams.”
Jackman sells the character hard, since Gracey never slows the pace long enough to let Barnum develop as more than a few personality traits, mostly aggressive and all an excuse for another musical number, each choreographed by Ashley Wallen with all the subtlety of a forced military march. My hunch is that Pasek & Paul have crafted a terrific score, but the film buries it in pounding, processed, overdubbed orchestrations that make the voices sound disembodied and auto-tuned out any traces of human nuance.
The Greatest Showman is a period film, but the songs are and meant to suggest TODAY! The standout is “This Is Me,” an anthem to diversity led by bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle). The updating is a harmless enough conceit until Barnum decides to class up his act and introduce the Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to America. Famous for her operatic soprano, Lind is saddled here with “Never Enough,” an emo power ballad that never suggests opera or anything more than the reject pile left by contestants on The Voice. It’s true that Miss Lind does come on to Barnum, but the film flees from any hint of illicit sex that might endanger the PG rating required for family viewing.
The banality continues with the secondary love interest between Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), Barnum’s upper-class producer, and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), an African-American trapeze artist. The relationship is meant as a cross-racial provocation. But when the duo sings “Rewrite the Stars” you know all will be well. Kudos to Zendaya for resisting the need to overact that afflicts the rest of the cast. Barnum’s cruel side is largely ignored, though he does try to keep his family of freaks out of the snob party he throws for Jenny Lind. Otherwise, Barnum quickly sees the light. And for anyone who dares to resist the cotton candy The Greatest Showman is selling, the film throws stones at theater critic James Bennett (Paul Sparks) who writes venomously about the Barnum brand of hardsell entertainment. In the context of this story, bad reviews are fake news. Still, I’m convinced there is a good movie trying to punch itself out of The Greatest Showman. What a shame that Gracey buried Jackman and company in a pile of marshmallow.