The Greatest Showman
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
The Greatest Showman is a musical biopic showing how P.T. Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 2013 for his last musical, Les Misérables) rose from poverty to create the circus we are all familiar with today. It has fine performances and a couple of good songs, but gets so bogged down in its dull and extremely clichéd story that it never becomes the charming, feel good spectacle it so badly wants to be.
The issues start right at the beginning. The first sequence is a triumphant song showing the adult Barnum as the ringleader for his circus. Though it ends on the young Barnum (Ellis Rubin) looking through a window and fantasizing about fame and fortune, we have already seen his moment of glory. While there certainly is no suspense coming into The Greatest Showman about how things will end up for Barnum, his success should still feel earned. And, because we have already seen a glimpse of his show before the story even starts, it does not.
After that, we see Barnum fall in love with a rich girl, Charity (played as a kid by Skylar Dunn and as an adult by four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) and, against her father’s wishes, marry her. Flash forward, they now have two young daughters and Barnum is trying to figure out how to support them after being fired from his latest job. He gets inspired while entertaining his daughters one night and takes out a huge loan to open a wax museum. When that fails, as a last ditch shot at success, he recruits a group of “oddities” (a little person, a bearded lady, identical twins, etc.) to put on a show.
The film’s main messages seem to be “be yourself” and “love is more important than money.” But neither of them are conveyed with much conviction. Barnum treats his stars like exploitable commodities, shoving them aside for an attempt at mainstream success promoting a Swedish singer (Rebecca Ferguson from the Mission: Impossible franchise).
Though the story wants us to believe there is real love and friendship between Barnum and his cast, I was never convinced that he saw them as more than dollar signs. There is also a friendship between Barnum and a playwright, Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), he convinces to partner with him, but they do not have much of a relationship either. In fact, Carlyle is far more connected to the circus stars, as he develops a romance with gymnast Anne (Zendaya, Peter Parker’s friend Michelle in Spider-Man: Homecoming). Barnum’s closest relationship is with his wife and daughters, but they are really only there to provide artificial drama and make him feel conflicted at important moments.
One thing The Greatest Showman (97 minutes, not including the end credits) does have going for it are its songs (written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who were nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song this year for “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land). They have an enjoyably showy flair about them and do a good job of advancing the story and developing the characters (a much better job than the screenplay by Jenny Bicks (a co-writer on Rio 2) and Bill Condon (who was nominated for an Oscar for adapting the musical Chicago in 2002)).
The best song is “This Is Me” a showstopper sung by Barnum’s circus stars about accepting them for who they are. It is also well-performed by the cast and well-edited. However, first-time director Michael Gracey does not use it at a point in the film that best maximizes its impact. At that precise moment, it has no real effect on the story. At the end of the film, it could have been very powerful. But in the middle, it is just a good diversion.
Despite the songs and a solid cast, The Greatest Showman fails to deliver on its promise. It does not convincingly tell Phineas Taylor Barnum’s story nor does it convey the showmanship he prided himself on. Hugh Jackman is never really given the opportunity to cut loose and everyone else (except for maybe Efron) is kept in the background. The Greatest Showman has been nominated for three Golden Globes, but make no mistake. This is not the best show in town.
2¼ out of 5
Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum
Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum
Zac Efron as Phillip Carlyle
Zendaya as Anne Wheeler
Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind
Sam Humphrey as Tom Thumb
Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz
Fred Lehne as Mr. Hallett
Ellis Rubin as Young Barnum
Skylar Dunn as Young Charity
Directed by Michael Gracey
Screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon