The legendary ringmaster and huckster P.T. Barnum probably never even uttered the phrase he’s most famous for, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Though he did say a lot of other things — including “The bigger humbug, the better people will like it.” And that’s one dictum The Greatest Showman takes on faith, delivering a lavish candybox musical bursting with broad strokes, bright colors, and bearded ladies.
Born a poor tailor’s son, Barnum is a scrappy kid with brass-ring dreams and an enduring crush on the unattainably rich and lovely Charity (Michelle Williams) to match. Somehow, in a setup so brief it hardly pauses for puberty, their childhood friendship blossoms into a grownup passion deep enough to make her leave her cushioned life behind and bear him two daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely, respectively). Life is rough and laundry is hard, but P.T. is determined to give his girls the world he promised them, see? Which begins, misguidedly, with a sort of DIY museum (a vintage guillotine, a dusty stuffed giraffe) before evolving into the circus as we know it today. Or did for decades, at least: A wild cavalcade of sword swallowers and contortionists, trained elephants and human curiosities (Dog Boy, Tiny Napoleon, Guy With All the Face Tattoos).
First-time director Michael Gracey, working from a script by Jenny Bicks (Sex & the City) and Bill Condon (Chicago, Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls), plunges ahead in a giddy rush, carving out ample opportunities for his stars to sing the soaring rock-opera compositions penned by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the gifted musical duo behind La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen. What he doesn’t make much room for is subtlety; every emotion is signaled to the peanut gallery, every story beat landed with a foot stomp and a handclap.
The movie never quite stops feeling like Moulin Rouge! written in extra-large block font, or Broadway projected straight onto a big screen, which certainly isn’t bad news if that’s exactly what you love. Though it doesn’t help that the 49-year-old Jackman, one of the most charming men in two hemispheres, is asked to play roughly half his age for nearly half the movie—or that Williams isn’t given much to do besides twirl and nod and smile sweetly, unless she’s frowning sweetly. There must have been real collateral damage from the kind of single-minded ambition that drove a man like Barnum, but there’s nothing here that a tip of his top hat and a step-ball-change can’t seem to smooth over by the next scene.
Zac Efron, as a high-society swain with a secret affinity for circus folk, and Zendaya, as a trapeze artist with a swirl of cotton-candy hair and a fine-tuned sense of social justice, bring a gentler, more life-size sensibility to the story (as well as the requisite Millennial romance). And Rebecca Ferguson and Keala Settle, playing songbirds of distinctly different class strata and mustache capacity, make the most of their supporting roles; in two of the movie’s best scenes, each explores the psychic pain of a lifetime spent feeling like the Other in almost every room they enter. But The Greatest Showman hasn’t come to linger on that kind of self-reflection; it’s too busy delivering great spectacle, and a lot of swirly, shiny humbug. B