'Greatest Showman' is a great big mess

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service

When the 2018 Golden Globe nominations were announced last week, "The Greatest Showman," which had yet to be released or reviewed, garnered a nomination for "Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy," seemingly just for being a musical.

"The Greatest Showman" is definitely a musical, but there's nothing "greatest" or "best" about it.

This wild and wacky musical biopic of circus impresario P.T. Barnum is a profoundly confused and muddled film, with a story that's at once too thin and too busy, a period piece making a halfhearted gesture towards modern-day values, with everything pasted into place using a mixture of frantic pop music and Hugh Jackman's flop sweat.

The songs, which are pervasive and endless, are ear worms that are catchy as all get-out. They're written by the Oscar-winning songwriters of "La La Land," Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, so it makes sense they would be so infectious. But there's a deeply strange cognitive dissonance in watching performers in period dress sing and dance to contemporary pop songs. The anachronistic soundtrack worked well in "A Knight's Tale" and "Marie Antoinette," but it just doesn't work here, when the characters burst into modern songs, especially to move the story forward or describe their emotions. There's a particularly jarring number billed as "opera" that's actually a Celine Dion-style ballad.

The story follows the rise of circus impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum (Jackman), a dreamer and a go-getter always trying to improve his station in life to impress his upper crust in-laws. He risks it all on a show, turning his museum of oddities into a live freak show with curious characters, animals, acrobatics, song and dance.

But his constant striving for acceptance drives him to the breaking point. He abandons his wife (Michelle Williams), daughters and show as he becomes obsessed with attaining high-brow status (and a good review from a cranky theater critic) with a tour for opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

Michael Gracey makes his directorial debut with "The Greatest Showman," with a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. The script doesn't know what era it's in, especially with regard to the circus performers. Barnum delights in the different and strange people he hires, who draw large crowds — both ticket buyers and protesters. Some of his "freaks" have genetic differences (a dwarf, a giant), some have body modifications (tattooed guy) and some are just different because of white Western standards of beauty (a bearded lady, people of different races). Barnum brutally exploits them, leaves them high and dry, and is then celebrated for putting diverse performers on stage. All is forgiven with a rousing, foot-stomping number celebrating individuality. It's almost impossible to recover from that moral whiplash, especially when Barnum is clearly a narcissist lacking in empathy.

At the center of all this chaos is a rather sweet love story between richie rich producer Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and trapeze performer Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Their stripped-down aerial duet is simply stunning and demonstrates both the possibilities of a circus-based musical, as well as the magnetic chemistry and charisma of these two performers. It's also a treat to watch Efron return to his musical roots. You wish that "The Greatest Showman" focused on this couple and got rid of the rest of the mess.

1.5 stars
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle.
Directed by Michael Gracey.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes .
Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl.