Released December 20
The Greatest Showman is far from the greatest show. This musical biography of one of the most eccentric and talented marketing men of show business lacks complexity and fire. The talented cast has performed heartfelt renditions of somewhat unremarkable music. Hugh Jackman really “gets” his role as P.T. Barnum, a kind of “Walt Disney” of the 1800’s. However the screenplay is so disjointed that the story seems to be a series of musical numbers strung together by a mundane narrative. It is no surprise that the experience of first time director Michael Gracey lies mostly in commercials and music videos. There is an art to establishing a driving force that moves a big story forward and endowing your characters with fascinating personalities that comes with experience working on feature films. The screenplay that Gracey was given did not have those components. The movie starts immediately with a musical performance by Jackman, before we have even become acquainted with his character well enough to believe that his emotions have inspired him to burst into song.
There were six editors who worked on the film – not good for continuity of style and rhythm. Producers must have realized there was trouble. Veteran director James Mangold was brought in a few weeks before the release to do reshoots and more post-production, which also portends dysfunction of style.
The story could have had much more depth. P.T. Barnum was born in 1810 and began his multi-faceted and colorful career in the early to mid 1800’s, in New York City, a city that was just finding its boisterous personality. He introduced spectacle at a time when the public believed that “morality” was the accepted aspiration. Rather than the simple son of a tailor that this movie describes, Barnum had relatives who were some of the original European transplants to our country. His favorite grandfather was a “legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and lottery schemer.” He was much more complex than the character depicted in this screenplay. Jackman “got” him, the screenwriters did not. I would love to have seen the circus characters depicted with some insight into what their fascinating backstories must have been.
The actors do a wonderful job with the script they’ve been given. Stand-outs are Keala Settle as the “Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Lady” and Zendaya as Trapeze Artist “Anne Wheeler.” Zac Efron seems to be searching valiantly for some spark of conflict to light up his portrayal of “Phillip Carlyle.” Rebecca Ferguson does the best she can with “Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale.” The film’s depiction of this legendary soprano from the 1800’s is jarring. Today’s audience is not so naïve that an 1800’s artist needs to be depicted as a contemporary pop star.
There could have been a great rhythm established to the music and the story. The film does not achieve what it should have – suspending our belief and letting our imaginations go free. P.T. Barnum would probably have done that had he directed the movie.
Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which is the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people. She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. firstname.lastname@example.org. For previously published reviews see https://kwboole.wordpress.com