Midway through an 11 o’clock number set in a bar in “The Greatest Showman” — there are several such numbers; this movie musical’s turned up to 11 all the time — Hugh Jackman, as impresario P.T. Barnum, ends his song and departs. Off he goes, on a last-scene-of-”When-Harry-Met-Sally” run through the streets of New York to his beloved, to give us the happy ending this movie has been promising, improbably, from its opening moments.
And yet … the film keeps cutting back to that bar, where the supporting cast is still singing and dancing and carrying on, seemingly in defiance of the passage of time and the limits of human endurance; causing me to wonder: Are they still singing and dancing right now? If a camera cuts away from a musical number, does it still exist? If Jackman found Meg Ryan at the end of his run, would he truly be the greatest showman on Earth?
Movie musicals walk a tricky tightrope — all that singing can be magical, or it can just be silly — and “The Greatest Showman” teeters, all too often. Many years in the making, this film has long been a passion project for Jackman. You can see that in the zeal with which he plays Barnum; in the way that he throws every bit of his famous charm and mellifluous baritone into the role. If the performance feels too big — if you’re wondering about the location of the second balcony he seems to be playing to — perhaps that’s because everything about this movie feels too big, starting with its depiction of Barnum as a sort of huckster saint whose freak-show circus was a family-like celebration of humanity and diversity. Admittedly, “exploitation” is a hard word to rhyme.
To be fair, Jackman and first-time director Michael Gracey (who relies far too heavily on smiling reaction shots) clearly haven’t set out to make a factual, period-specific biography of Barnum. The events take place during the mid-1800s, but the costumes and styling look like steampunk, the songs sound like contemporary pop and the musical numbers resemble Cirque de Soleil with a pinch of Fosse. The effect is a bright, schmaltzy, family-friendly spectacle; a colorful balloon that, if you pop it, leaves nothing behind.
“La La Land” captured some hearts last year, including mine, with its way of making a musical number both over-the-top and intimate — of finding the tiny, personal story at its core. “The Greatest Showman” isn’t interested in tiny stories or character or nuance; it’s about being the biggest. In doing so, it becomes strangely small; like a magician’s rabbit, it quickly disappears.
‘The Greatest Showman’
Directed by: Michael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle.
Running time: 105 minutes