Has there ever been a movie more hopelessly insecure about its ability to entertain, to matter, to hold your interest, to keep you tap-tap-tapping, than “The Greatest Showman”?
A fidgety, shallow musical with postures instead of characters and anthems instead of tunes, it purports to inspire with the rags-to-riches story of winking 19th century impresario P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), curator of performing animals, mythic humans, and — drum roll, please — dreams.
Yet its empty, loud breathlessness is the real bunk to behold: think trailer for a movie more than movie itself. Or more accurately, think teaser to the trailer to the movie. It’s a broken record of ersatz positivity and empowerment, practically shout-singing at you to be all you can be while it mostly just is what it is, plastic flash without any enduring oomph.
Never mind that there are credibly alluring names attached to its making besides the Tony Award-winning Jackman. His co-stars are Michelle Williams (she sings too!), Zac Efron (graduate of Disney’s tune-filled high-school cable flicks), and the appealing Zendaya; the songs are by the “La La Land” team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; and the screenplay is attributed to erstwhile small-screen scribe Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City”) and Academy Award-winning FOM (Friend of the Musical) Bill Condon. But in the three-ring mess that is “Showman” — as handled by first-time feature director Michael Stracey, a veteran of commercials and music videos — what comes through is the sweat and the desperation, not the talent.
After a stadium-thumping opening number of circus glitz with the yeah-you-wish lyric “This is where you want to be,” we morph haphazardly to our hero’s dirt-faced beginnings, a workman’s boy trying to make a rich girl in a big mansion laugh with off-the-cuff magic. Suddenly these two are Jackman and Williams all grown up, and Barnum, bristling at his dead-end clerk job, has made Charity his happy wife. To prove she’s thrilled about living poor, they dance on their building’s rooftop among line-drying sheets. (Although the bit of choreography in which Williams leans over the edge, smiling, before hubby grabs her, could be read the wrong way.)
He’s got ambition, though, and as quickly as the movie gives them two grade-school-age daughters, he’s got his own museum of exotic, inanimate wonders. When the business doesn’t boom, he convinces a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a tiny person (Sam Humphrey as General Tom Thumb), and other “oddities” with physical differences to become his next star attractions, the logic being if they’re going to be stared at, they might as well be paid for it. Presumably the hiring of Zendaya’s pink-haired African-American trapeze artist falls under this give-em-what-they-gawk-at ethos, too. Add animals, and voila! Success! (The whole movie, really, is that exclamation point joke about musicals.)
It’s not enough, though. Still obsessed with being accepted by the swells, Barnum partners with a society heir named Philip (Efron), but all that stands out from their whiplash-paced, deal-sealing bar number is a lot of moving around and drinking out of shot glasses. Then, to win over a snooty critic — there are literally no other kind in movies — he signs up fast-rising Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) for a big tour.
But because the movie apparently needed romantic conflict, it uninventively invents Lind crushing on the happily-married Barnum. But it also brings Efron and Zendaya together to bust 1850’s race-mixing taboos, a coupling which does yield the movie’s most enjoyable number, “Rewrite the Stars,” if only because it’s not trying to showstop its way into your brain, and rather engagingly incorporates Zendaya’s character’s swinging-twirling abilities.
But primarily the Pasek-Paul songs are blandly written, overproduced motivationspeak designed for chorus chanting, and that regrettably includes the oddities’ “I Am What I Am”-like plea for acceptance, “This Is Me.” It’s admirably belted by Settle, but paired poorly with a snow-filled march through the streets that looks cold instead of stirring.
As for Nathan Crowley’s production design and Seamus Garvey’s cinematography overall, the look is first-glance sumptuous, but ultimately trapped between fake and extra fake, wanting to evoke the glory of old-school grand studio sets and yet meet the vogue to digitize as much of the screen as possible. It makes “Newsies” look like a long-lost documentary about New York.
The biggest missed opportunity is Jackman’s. Had the limber, charismatic star-producer, who shepherded this project for years, simply filmed himself in his living room performing the Broadway musical “Barnum” — not a great show, but infinitely more enjoyable — you might have something worthy of his traditional song-and-dance acumen. “The Greatest Showman” instead just sticks him on a treadmill of vacuous energy and cardboard-cut emotion that squanders his natural charm. He’s left coming off as a tour guide of hearty encouragement instead of a flesh-and-blood pusher of hoaxes, thrills, and wonder.
The real Barnum believed audiences wanted to be fooled. Where “The Greatest Showman” stumbles is in not having a deceptive, rascally bone in its impatient, obvious, imagination-challenged body.