Just about every moment in “The Greatest Showman” is dripping with corny and cheesy and shameless sentiment.
No kidding, there were times when I rolled my eyes to the ceiling with all the subtlety of a round-faced Emoji.
But then I’d look down and realize my foot was once again tapping in time to the beat of the catchy tunes, at which point I’d just settle back and acknowledge I was thoroughly enjoying myself, despite all cynical instincts.
Directed by Michael Gracey and featuring songs from the immensely talented and red-hot duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Oscar winners for “La La Land,” Tony winners for “Dear Evan Hansen”), “The Greatest Showman” has the look and feel of a Broadway hit adapted for the big screen — but it is wholly separate from “Barnum,” the musical that debuted in New York in 1980.
This is an original work, inspired by the life and times of the legendary 19th century promoter P.T. Barnum, who didn’t actually coin the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but most certainly was devoted to finding new and creative ways to attract a crowd — even if it meant stretching the truth and inventing narratives in order to sell tickets.
It’s an easy casting decision to have Hugh Jackman play Barnum, given Jackman’s credentials as a Broadway performer and of course the film version of “Les Miserables.” (Hey. Don’t blame Jackman for the Russell Crowe insanity.) Jackman is an old-fashioned movie star, equally effective as the anti-hero “Logan” and the play-it-to-rafters P.T. Barnum.
“The Greatest Showman” opens with Jackman/Barnum in splashy splendor, center stage, wearing a beautiful red coat, sporting a top hat and twirling his cane. With the chorus providing a backbeat and vocals that sound like something out of an anthem from Queen, Barnum sings, “It’s everything you ever want, it’s everything you ever need, and it’s right in front of you. … This is where you wanna be!”
And 10 days after seeing the movie, as I type these words, I don’t stand a chance of NOT hearing that tune (titled “The Greatest Show”) all over again. It’s the first of at least a half-dozen undeniably addictive numbers.
As the music fades, Barnum finds himself alone onstage, wondering where everyone has gone. Cue the flashback and the real start of the story.
After a heavy-handed sequence in which the young and impoverished P.T. (Ellis Rubin) first sets eyes on the privileged but sweet Charity (Skylar Dunn) and they instantly fall in love, we flash forward a dozen years or so, with Jackman now playing P.T. and Michelle Williams as Charity. (OK fine, they’re no more believable as 20ish lovers than Robert Redford and Glenn Close in “The Natural,” but it’s not long before the story moves ahead another 10 years and we can go with it.)
Through the years (and the birth of two daughters), as the family barely survives, Charity remains supportive of P.T. and his dreams — and just when all hope seems dashed, P.T. comes up with the mad scheme to showcase the outcasts, the unusual, the “freaks” of the world. And it works!
We rarely go more than 10 minutes without the characters breaking into song — and not in the “live singing” style of “Les Miserables,” but in a manner that makes it clear Jackman et al. are lip-syncing to previously recorded material. When it’s a big production number highlighting dance moves and group singing, that’s not an issue. When it’s an intimate moment with just two performers: it’s an issue.
Still, there’s not a clunker in the entire soundtrack.
Even after P.T. achieves great success and fame as a showman, he yearns to be accepted as more than a huckster. To that end, he brings the famous Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to the States, ignoring his responsibilities to circus and family as he devotes all his attention and finances to Jenny’s American tour.
Hmmm, perhaps P.T. will have to hit rock bottom and even contemplate giving into temptation before he realizes what’s truly important in life!
Zac Efron, who’s kind of a mini-Jackman in that he can do the song-and-dance stuff but also straight dramatic material (although he still has a long way to go to match Jackman’s total skill set), is terrific as Phillip Carlyle, a to-the-manor-born type who risks becoming a society outcast when he partners up with P.T. Given the tenor of the times and the world in which he was raised, Phillip must decide if he’ll take an even bigger risk when he falls in love with Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a black trapeze artist.
My favorite number in “The Greatest Showman” is when the bearded lady (Keala Settle in a lovely and funny and warm performance) leads the charge after the “freaks” find themselves on the outside looking in yet again — but instead of resorting to their lifelong default mode of slipping into the shadows, they respond with a defiant, strength-in-numbers, badass song of affirmation.
With all that corn and cheese and old-timey sentiment, “The Greatest Showman” ends up scoring some very timely social arguments. P.T. Barnum himself would have approved the dramatic sleight of hand.
Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Michael Gracey and written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon.. Rated PG (for thematic elements including a brawl). Running time: 105 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.