The Greatest Showman movie review: Hugh Jackman can't save this formulaic, unexciting film

Mihir Fadnavis

Dec,29 2017 12:56:42 IST


A film about a showman starring Hugh Jackman seems like a sure thing on paper – we’ve already seen in The Prestige and Les Miserables that Jackman can elevate any material of this sort. The Greatest Showman, unfortunately doesn’t benefit from his talent as it is bogged down by formulaic story beats, unexciting plotting and messy direction.

The film is kind of a biopic, but not wholly one – which means the story chronicles PR Barnum’s life, but just the moments that can be classified as the ‘greatest hits’ which are executed in song and dance style of La La Land, with songs even written by that film’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. We’re quickly introduced to Barnum (Jackman) who comes from poverty; frustrated by having to constantly make ends meet he decides to start a freak show that showcases weird people right in the heart of New York. People decide to pay up to witness this museum of horror and Barnum benefits monetarily, even though it is from bad press.

Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman.

The film works in the first act where director Michael Gracey only has to set things up – there are a string of songs juxtaposed to scenes of Barnum’s early life of squalor, his relationship with his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) who has come from a privileged background and a tyrannical father – something that Barnum is determined to never become. From the second act onwards, the film begins to falter ironically as Barnum’s wealth grows. Clarity is lost as we see sudden changes in Barnum’s personality without really understanding what is going on in his head, and whether wealth has corrupted him or he’s bogged down by existential angst.

There is a strange subplot involving a successful Swedish singer called Jenny (Rebecca Fergusson) who appears in Barnum’s life but then abruptly disappears from the film – it adds nothing to the story or your understanding of what made or broke Barnum. Moreover, Jenny is supposed to be this seductive diva but she comes across as mostly a caricature of a diva – making Barnum’s fascination with the woman all the more problematic.

But this is just one of the many threads that seem injected and underutilized within the film; it makes you wonder if the real meat of Barnum’s story was left on the cutting room floor. Maybe this should have been a much longer, more somber and focused story rather than the clichéd musical that it ultimately is.

It’s not all gloom and doom because some of the songs work quite well, and Zendaya once again shines - after Spiderman: Homecoming and her performance in this one it’s clear that she’s a born star, a true cinematic successor to Jackman.

Zac Efron also gets a couple of fun moments to flex his muscles and show off his singing and dancing skills – effortlessly putting both leads of La La Land in the dust. If the film didn’t rely only on the considerable charm of Jackman, Zendaya and Efron, it could have been much more a forgettable experience.

There is a chance the film will have a better shelf life on streaming platforms because of its crowd pleasing musical elements, maybe it would be better to wait it out rather than catch it in theaters where one can’t push the forward button during the dull dull bits.

Published Date: Dec 29, 2017 12:56 PM | Updated Date: Dec 29, 2017 12:56 PM