In a more honest or at least more interesting version of “The Greatest Showman,” P.T. Barnum, famed American ringmaster and skilled exploiter of misfits and outcasts, would have been the villain rather than the hero. But where would be the fun, the uplift or the box-office potential in that? Like a few other recent movies about entertainers blessed with more ambition than talent (“Birdman” and “Florence Foster Jenkins” come to mind), this one knows there’s no quicker way to get you on a huckster’s side than to pit him against an even bigger fraud. Which is to say, a critic.
The reviewer in question is James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), a 19th-century New York newspaperman who regularly attends Barnum’s show for no apparent reason other than to keep reminding himself and the public how dreadful it is. Scorning the professional distance that typically separates critics from the artists they write about, Bennett strides up to Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and demands, “Does it matter that everything you’re selling is fake?”
A worthy question, and one that might well be directed at this movie, a hectic two-hour whirlwind of musical, visual and narrative artifice. But the purpose of Bennett’s vitriol, of course, is to pre-empt any such critical inquiry on the audience’s part. Directed with bland competence by Michael Gracey from a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, “The Greatest Showman” is both a fitful hoot and a remarkably upbeat con job, one that seizes upon Barnum’s talent for hoodwinking his customers and tries to foist it in turn upon the audience.
There’s pleasure to be had in falling for a good hustle, and from time to time Gracey’s movie offers a reasonable facsimile of that pleasure. It has bright colors and high spirits, and it’s held together by a song score (from the Oscar-winning “La La Land” duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) whose creamy-vanilla smoothness is as insipid as it is hard to resist. You don’t believe what the filmmakers are selling for an instant, but at times you can almost believe they believe it themselves.
“A million dreams are keeping me awake,” croons the young Phineas Taylor Barnum (Ellis Rubin), and viewers should be held in a similar state of non-drowsiness by the movie’s busy choreography and bouncy orchestrations. Barnum, the son of a poor tailor, grows up to become a wily dreamer and schemer played with full-throated energy by Jackman, who attacks his upper vocal register with the freedom of someone who has no immediate plans to play Wolverine again.
Barnum marries his devoted childhood sweetheart, Charity (a wan, ill-served Michelle Williams), who gives him two sweet daughters and asks nothing of him in return besides his love. But love, not to get too far ahead of the soundtrack, is never enough. Determined to give Charity the life she once enjoyed with her wealthy, disapproving family, Barnum proves reckless, dishonest and proud in equal measure, and he quickly manipulates a bank into financing his dream project, a multistory “museum of curiosities.”
The wax figures and stuffed giraffes that Barnum puts on display don’t draw much attention at first. But once he starts recruiting human eccentrics as gaudy proto-circus attractions — a bearded lady (Keala Settle), conjoined twins (Yusaku Komori and Danial Son), the aptly named Gen. Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) — the crowds begin to gather. So does an angry mob, which demands that the impresario and his “degenerates” leave town.
Barnum’s show gets a classy lift — as does the movie — when he launches the American career of an esteemed Swedish soprano, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). This is the kind of picture, of course, in which a purported opera singer opens her mouth and a power ballad worthy of Celine Dion comes pouring out instead. But if you’re not blown away by Jenny’s wild gesticulations and soaring melismas (Loren Allred supplies the vocals), then you might enjoy parsing the coy seduction-number subtext of “The Other Side,” in which Barnum persuades the highbrow theater personality Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to help produce his show.
But any intriguing possibilities raised by the lyrics “come with me and take the ride” are swiftly reduced to powder by the movie’s grinding narrative machinery. While Barnum works to save his marriage to the long-suffering Charity, Carlyle falls literally head-over-heels for an aerialist named Anne Wheeler (Zendaya, who, like Efron, is a Disney Channel alum). The potentially scandalous fallout of a white man romancing a black woman leads Carlyle and Anne to seek refuge in the rafters, soaring on ropes and singing their hearts out in one of the movie’s literal high points.
Unlike the stage musical “Side Show,” a Broadway revival of which Condon directed a few years ago, “The Greatest Showman” doesn’t unfold primarily from the perspective of its “Oddities,” as Barnum’s performers are known here. But it does occasionally grant them the spotlight, and it makes more than a passing attempt to be on their side. Their signature number, “This Is Me,” featuring a rousing solo by Settle, is both a proud declaration of individual identity and a defiant anthem of empowerment. As Barnum himself notes at one point, “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”
Admittedly, that maxim rings a bit hollow coming from a character whose real-life counterpart shamelessly exploited his performers’ differences, inflaming the public’s racism as well as its hunger for spectacle and grotesquerie. Curiously absent from the movie’s relentless feel-good offensive are any references to, say, the blackface minstrel acts that Barnum produced. Nor is there any mention of Joice Heth, a slave whom Barnum paraded before his customers, falsely claiming that she was George Washington’s 161-year-old former “mammy.”
I mention this not out of any need for strict historical accuracy — strictly speaking, there is nothing about this movie that anyone needs — but rather to explain why “The Greatest Showman,” for all its celebratory razzle-dazzle, in the end feels curiously lacking in conviction. Its pleasures, namely those Pasek-Paul songs, could be removed and repurposed for another story entirely, with no discernible loss in enjoyment or meaning.
Its failures are rooted in something deeper: a dispiriting lack of faith in the audience’s intelligence, and a dawning awareness of its own aesthetic hypocrisy. You’ve rarely seen a more straight-laced musical about the joys of letting your freak flag fly.
‘The Greatest Showman’
Rating: PG, for thematic elements including a brawl
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general release