Ignore the vintage 20th Century Fox logo that appears on screen at the start of the film, “The Greatest Showman” is nothing if not a uniquely 21st century spectacle, a gaudy sonic boom of musical cinema that tries to sell you on the magic of the movies like it’s Black Friday at a store that’s going out of business. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a joyfully insane experience that’s as subtle as a circus and twice as loud. Forget the multiplexes; this is a movie that feels like it was made to be screened on a Jumbotron in the middle of Times Square as a shimmering advertisement for its own existence.
Shamelessly familiar and profoundly alien in equal measure, “The Greatest Showman” takes a billion of the world’s oldest story beats and refashions their prefab emotions into something that feels like it’s being projected from another planet. A lot of that strangeness is owed to the fact that the film is structured like a Broadway musical that’s been thoughtlessly repackaged as an 105-minute movie; its songs are stacked on top of each other like kids hiding inside a trench coat, screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon hoping you’ll be too amused to notice that all of these numbers don’t actually add up to a coherent plot. Oh, you’ll notice, but you might not care.
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And really, how could you? When Hugh Jackman stands in a spotlight and sings that “this is the moment you’ve been waiting for,” you can’t help but take the guy at his word. Set sometime in the 1840’s and scored to a tight array of tunes written by “La La Land” duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “The Greatest Showman” might sound like the first Hollywood musical of the Jack Antonoff age (brace for maddeningly catchy pop songs full of hi-hats, deep bass fills, and IMAX-sized choruses), but this is an old-fashioned thing at heart. It’s a wide-eyed myth about an iconoclast who dragged the American dream into waking life through sheer force of will, first-time director Michael Gracey following in Baz Luhrmann’s oversized footsteps as he uses contemporary aesthetics to convey a hero who was ahead of his time. It all starts with a shout:
We learn everything that the film wants us to know about its Barnum in the span of a single song: He begins as the poor son of a tailor and falls in love with a rich girl named Charity (Michelle Williams), whose strict father sends her to boarding school because she had the temerity…to stick out her tongue. When Barnum’s father dies he resorts to stealing bread, but his outlook on the world is forever changed when a disfigured stranger hands the starving kid a shiny red apple out of pity (a transformative moment that’s inexplicably draped in fairy tale terror). He and Charity get married, they have two cherubic daughters, and Barnum accepts a menial job as a clerk at an office next to a cemetery. When the business goes belly up, he uses some fake collateral to swindle a bank out of a $10,000 loan and open a museum of morbid curiosities.
Buckle up, because all of that happens in five minutes, give or take, and the movie only begins in earnest once Barnum realizes that his attraction will need some living acts if it hopes to survive. The next thing you know, he’s assembled an eager chorus of “freaks” to parade in front of an unsuspecting public, luring them out of the shadows in order to profit off their shame. There’s a Bearded Woman with a heavenly voice (Keala Settle), a grown man in a kid’s body (Sam Humphrey), a giant, a fire-breather, and more. It’s something of a win-win, as these outcasts get to reclaim a measure of pride, and Barnum gets to thumb his nose at all the people who said he’d never amount to anything.
Still, even though Settle leads the cast in a rousing performance of the anthemic “This Is Me,” it’s hard to buy “The Greatest Showman” as much of an empowerment story when most of the circus performers are denied even a sliver of personal agency, their various storylines congealing into one as they accept their few minutes of screen time.
Consider it Barnum’s narcissistic genius at work: He’s not just the greatest showman, he’s also the star of the show. As well he should be. Jackman made an indelible Wolverine, but Barnum is the role he was born to play. A stage veteran with such refined charm that it can’t help but invite a certain degree of suspicion, Jackman has already proven that he can sell audiences on a lovable flimflam man (he does it twice over in “The Prestige” alone), but here he gets to combine his strengths with a part that allows him to hoodwink us and act the hero at the same time. In a movie where virtually nothing is believable, or even tries to be, Jackman manages to sell every note and adjust for inflation. How cynical and canny that the movie let’s him get away with that, every inch of its glossy plastic world reflecting its hero’s narcissism (you can almost see the seams in the backdrop that stretches out behind Barnum’s apartment).
It’s a performance so big that the movie barely has room for anyone else, but the most beautiful people always manage to find the spotlight. “High School Musical” alum Zac Efron shines as a well-heeled producer who becomes a self-made freak by distancing himself from high society. He finds his way into both of the film’s show-stopping numbers: One is a spirited and sexually charged dance with Jackman where the two men play with shot glasses like they’re a top hat and cane. The other is a soaring triumph of aerial choreography, as Efron tries to woo a black trapeze artist (Zendaya, exuding star power from every one of her invisible pores), whose skin has limited her options and forced her to become one of “the runaways who’ll run the night.” Race is never explicitly mentioned in a movie that has zero interest in unpacking Barnum’s complicated social politics, but Zendaya’s arc manages to reflect the real showman’s eventual reverence for all human life.
“The Greatest Showman” suggests that its hero wasn’t just a richer man for his time spent with the misfits, but a better one as well, and nobody wants to dwell on the scenes in which Barnum is confronted with his carelessness for other people. That makes the stuff with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) a real drag. The character is meant to tempt Barnum towards classier entertainments and turn his back on the freaks, but the film doesn’t have the patience to sift through all of that drama, so Lind is just reduced to a home-wrecker. Adding insult to injury, Ferguson’s big number is obviously overdubbed by Loren Allred. Even though none of the songs are performed live, and Gracey shoots most of the movie so that you can’t even see the actors moving their lips, this choice still lands with a very silly kind of shock.
Then again, “The Greatest Showman” is all about the dizzy pleasure of letting yourself be hoodwinked, and it’s a testament to the movie’s idiosyncratic appeal that it never loses its power to lower your defenses and take your breath away. Distilling all of his film’s disparate themes into the stuff of raw emotion, Gracey has crafted a wildly ridiculous spectacle that functions as an ode to wildly ridiculous spectacles, a movie that doesn’t care what you feel so long as you don’t feel like asking for your money back. In other words, this bonkers delight is so in love with its own bullshit that P.T. Barnum would be thrilled to lend it his name.
“The Greatest Showman” opens in theaters on December 20th.