Much like the swindler of spectacle he encompasses in Michael Gracey’s directing début highlighting P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman, Hugh Jackman continues being a man of all trades and may be one of the most overlooked actors of our generation for doing so. After his last emotionally charged and claret-coated goodbye to Logan earlier this year, he returns to his musical roots in what may seem like an overly romanticized take on the character, and it’s one that even dear Hugh struggles to put in a good light.
From a life in the gutter with his head in the clouds, Barnum goes from orphaned boy to head of a struggling family of four and husband to his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams); all of whom are hanging on Barnum’s hopes of bigger things. It’s a test not to get sucked in among the charm and chest-swelling songs that come with this sweeping take on the man behind The Greatest Show On Earth. Even so, with the Disney-esque delivery of Barnum chasing the dream, there’s a crisis of conscience that gets oddly avoided when he gathers his sideshow acts consisting of local outcasts, which is the biggest trick that The Greatest Showman fails to make use of.
This is without a doubt what should’ve been the main attraction. One of loners roped into the ringmaster’s false promises that only lead to amplifying their insecurities but finding comfort in a family of unique individuals. It’s something that can’t be avoided when telling the tale of Barnum but is a majorly missed opportunity, especially given the incredible talent that, just like the characters they’re portraying, don’t get the attention they deserve.
Among all the songs that come bursting from under that top hat that Jackman so smoothly throws about the screen, its most powerful highlights actually come from his co-stars, most notably Keala Settle’s Bearded Lady and her show-stopping rendition of ‘This Is Me’. As soon as she lets rip, the film grinds to a halt and lets every note soar in what is the most emotionally charged moment the movie has to offer, hitting the screen like a juggernaut but disappearing just as quickly. This is followed closely by Zac Efron and Zendaya as Barnum’s business partner, Phillip Carlyle and the gymnast he falls for, Anne Wheeler, singing ‘Rewrite the Stars’. Both are enjoyable earworms that bury themselves in so deep you’ll be adding them to your Spotify queue by the time you’ve left the theatre.
The problem is that these heartfelt renditions feel all for naught when the attention shifts back to Barnum. This is in no way discrediting Jackman and the effort he and the cast are driving to, but every intermission between songs simply gives time to highlight a narrative that is heading in the wrong direction. Good job then that there isn’t much breathing time to do so and Gracey goes to great lengths to sweep you up into the spectacle of it all, even if it loses its sparkle every so often.