The Greatest Showman goes to absurd lengths to be a feel good movie and judging by audience reaction it's been a roaring success - despite its insincere tone. Released at the tail end of 2017, Showman started out slow but gained momentum with each weekend, an anomaly these days. Although the cast is having fun, there's an unsettling disingenuous to the whole enterprise.
Hugh Jackman stars as self promoter P.T. Barnum, a pivotal figure in the consciousness of 19th century America. A character straight from Horatio Alger, a mythology the musical upholds to the ninth degree, an entrepreneur who captured the attention of the world with his various curiosities, wetting the public's appetite for the bizarre. The musical suggests Barnum headed a progressive community of outcasts who managed to win the hearts and minds of all they encountered.
After a stirring opening number straight from A Chorus Line, the film becomes a series of set pieces that trace the rise and eventual global notoriety of Barnum. The songs are unremarkable and the look of the film is CGI artificial. The sequences look like they were pulled from other films, typically featuring Barnum's stable of freaks as backup singers.
While there's a few hints of Barnum's unsavory business practices, for the most part Jackman plays him as a puritanical visionary completely in sync with 21st century cultural mores. The bearded lady, the 500 lb man, General Tom Thumb, all worship Barnum as their savior and benefactor. Michelle Williams is given little to do except play the adoring wife. Zac Efron gets a nothing role as Barnum's partner Phillip Carlyle. All of it fails to ring true. More Disney commercial than movie.
At best, The Greatest Showman will generate interest in Barnum and in the hands of a capable filmmaker there's a wealth of rich material to explore. There are some nice moments. Rebecca Ferguson as opera singer Jenny Lind who joined Barnum takes over the middle of the film, Jackman is a charming enough screen presence, and the old fashioned style is sustainable, but ultimately, disappointing.