Hugh Jackman really is The Greatest Showman. We’ve all known he’s the classic triple threat, but somehow it’s his performance as P.T. Barnum that shows us what that really means. His voice is soaring and pristine, especially in the number “A Million Dreams” as he takes over from the young Barnum (Ellis Rubin). His dancing is exuberant and flawless. From that opening shot showing him in silhouette, to his swagger as he dons the iconic red coat, Jackman has us enthralled. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him. You can see the joy in his eyes every time he’s on screen, and his passion for the movie positively seeps out of his pores. This role was made for him, and if not for his brilliance as Wolverine, you can almost say that this is the apotheosis of his career.
The musical numbers are brilliant. Jackman’s duets with Zac Efron (“The Other Side”) and Michelle Williams (the aforementioned “A Million Dreams”), the anthemic “This Is Me” and especially the rousing “From Now On”, are all perfectly choreographed. Simply put, they are just beautiful. The way the song “The Greatest Showman” serves as the opening and closing number, effectively bookending the film, is also inspired. It’s a poignant moment when Efron takes over from Jackman in the song and on the screen.
The only problem is everything else in between. Williams’ solo “Tightrope”, which was my least favorite from the soundtrack, came alive on screen. One reason for that, aside from Williams’ acting, is because the scene preceding it provided a much needed context that gave the song more meaning. By contrast, my personal favorite “This Is Me” fell flat when I finally saw the movie. I’d been watching the video for weeks, and I was excited to find out more about the bearded lady, the tattooed man, and the albino lady. But we never find out anything about these circus oddities, so the song falls flat. How can you feel invested in their journey from darkness to light when there is no such journey? Before that number, Keala Settle (Lettie Lutz) has maybe all of five lines. It’s ironic that in a movie that promotes itself as championing the weirdos, these very weirdos are relegated to the sidelines. Only Settle, Sam Humphrey (Tom Thumb), and Zendaya have any lines at all.
Not only is there no character development for the circus performers, some of them are downright inconsistent. In “This Is Me”, Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler defiantly stares down Efron’s character Philip Carlyle after he is embarrassed to be seen by his snobbish parents holding her hand. But in the next scene, after Carlyle’s parents see them together another time, Wheeler inexplicably loses all her heart and moans about not being able to “Rewrite The Stars”. There are other inconsistencies in the story as well. In the first half of the movie, Barnum is pretty stoic when it comes to his father-in-law’s dismissal of his prospects. So when he blows up at his father-in-law in the second half, it doesn’t make sense. In this scene we also hear for the very first time that his in-laws have never visited his children. These sudden revelations blindside you in the worst way. There are some gaping holes when it comes to Barnum’s relationship with his performers as well. He drifts away from them in his pursuit of respectability, but somehow in the last few scenes everything is okay again. When does all this happen? I’m not sure if this is just poor editing – were there important scenes left out? Or is it just a clunky screenplay? I don’t care how far the filmmakers strayed from history – this is not a documentary after all. But if this is the story you choose to tell, is it too much to ask that it make sense?
Somehow it’s hard to believe that an Oscar winner like Bill Condon could mess up so thoroughly. Perhaps the explanation also lies in director Michael Gracey’s experience (or lack of it). He’s mostly directed music videos, which explains why the song numbers are amazing and eminently re-watchable. But this is his first feature film, and maybe in the hands of a more experienced director, we could’ve gotten much more. They had seven years to make this, they got Hugh Jackman, they got great songs from Pasek and Paul, and actual singers who could sing (not like La La Land with its pretenders). Why did it go wrong?
A musical is still a movie, after all. The music is supposed to drive things forward, but the core should be the story. The Greatest Showman aimed for something high but it didn’t quite make it. (On the other extreme is something like Grease 2, whose entire existence is a plot hole. But at no point does it aspire to be anything more than fluff, and so it’s easier to watch because there is no inner conflict that you have to overcome.)
And this is the most disappointing part of all. This could have been Jackman’s BIG role. Something that should have gotten him at least another Golden Globe. Instead, it’s just great music and the Globe goes to James Franco.
I’m happy for Jackman that it’s a hit and people are watching. And I’m going to see it again when it comes out on DVD because, Hugh Jackman! But it’s the kind of movie where you have to shut up any part of you that asks questions or wants the story to make sense and just tell it to sing along, gosh darn it.