The Greatest Showman
Directed by Michael Gracey
Screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon
Story by Jenny Bicks
Starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
In an era of political upheaval and media mergers and acquisitions the likes of which the world has never seen, it is of particular interest that Twentieth Century Fox would choose to release a film about a struggling shyster who would eventually form one of the most famous variety acts, and circuses in the world. And a musical at that.
Set during the Depression Era, Ms. Bicks and Mr. Condon’s script focuses on the character of P. T. Barnum played with glee by Hugh Jackman. The fact that he’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actor – Comedy of Musical should be of no surprise.
Mr. Jackman is genuinely the star of the film as he rockets from ‘nothing’ to ‘something’ in under two hours. His wife, Charity is played by Michelle Williams. As P. T. comes from nothing, Charity comes from a life of privilege. That doesn’t stop P. T. from falling in love with her as a young lad, recognizing that he could give her a life that wealth never could afford.
As Mr. Jackman is the star, so are the musical numbers. Mr. Condon, who has worked on other musicals (Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast) previously, is perfect for this type of film. The trouble is that the story, such as it is, frames the musical numbers and a 105-minute run time doesn’t leave much room for the framework to expand. Had they expanded the drama just a bit more, the already dynamic characters would have jumped right out of the screen.
As it is, there are two key beats in the film that I think serve the film the best. The first is when Barnum meets playwright Phillip Carlyle played by Zac Efron. Their duet, “The Other Side” is the most intimately performed number, between two future friends. The second is an ongoing distaste that Mr. Barnum has for professional criticism. I leave it to you to discover the how’s and the why’s it works. The entire troupe performs the Golden Globe – nominated “This Is Me,” which highlights the story’s progression.
The lacking drama that I mentioned earlier is not completely dismissed. In his quest for glory, and in a rather awkward moment, P. T. and Philip are introduced to Jenny Lind, a famous Swedish singer played by Rebecca Ferguson. Her introduction represents a fundamental change for Barnum in the narrative. Ms. Ferguson’s performance reminded me of Maïwenn’s performance as the Diva, Plavalaguna in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element: it is within the chaos of life that this perfection soars, inspires and, ultimately, captivates Barnum. Oh the irony!
As Jenny Lind is to Barnum, so is Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler to Phillip. Because of the time the film is set, the discrimination against Anne based on color prevents her from having the same opportunities afforded her as Phillip. That doesn’t stop Phillip from falling head-over-heels over her, though it does complicate their lives. It’s these small touches which tug on the fabric of the narrative. They serve their purpose, but the drama isn’t as strong as it could have potentially been. The musical number, “Rewrite the Stars” is brilliantly staged and the duo are magnetic on the screen, but it detracts from the dramatic tension that the film desperately needed.
Is it a showstopper? No.
The fundamentals are there, even if we’ve seen these themes previously. The cast does a wonderful job of personifying the musical pieces. It’s not The Sound of Music, however a strong cast and well-staged musical numbers should delight fans the world over, much the same as P. T. Barnum eventually did.
3 out of 4