There’s idiotic, and there’s magnificent, but “The Greatest Showman” is that special thing that happens sometimes. It’s magnificently idiotic. It’s an awful mess, but it’s flashy. The temptation is to cover your face and watch it through your fingers, because it’s so earnest and embarrassing and misguided — and yet it’s well-made.
People actually intended this, to make exactly this movie, and Hugh Jackman, as P.T. Barnum, puts it over. Thus, we get the perfect realization of a really bad idea.
This modern musical, made directly for film, tells the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the 19th century impresario, except that it doesn’t really tell Barnum’s story. Rather, it appropriates his name for a pop-culture sermon on inclusion that lets us know, just in case we didn’t realize, that 500-pound men and bearded ladies are not just perfectly valid citizens but “glorious.” This reaches its climax in an overblown anthem, in which the bearded lady (Keala Settle) leads a squad of circus oddities in proclaiming, “I’m not scared to be seen/I make no apologies/This is me!”
And, of course, the circus audience goes wild. They just love it! After all, there they are, expecting just another evening of elephants, lions and trapeze artists; and instead they get to witness a really bad song and dance number from a future century, guaranteed to make them all feel relieved to be living in the 1800s.
The songs were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen”), a disproportionate number of which are in the vein of “I am a perfect, beautiful entity in the universe — and no one appreciates me yet — but I’m so wonderful that everybody is going to realize it someday, and even if they never realize it, that won’t make me delusional.” Such songs may be intended as an inspiring paean to misunderstood underdogs, but they sound like the product of self-esteem parenting run amok.
These songs are bad, folks. How bad? Midway through the movie, you may find yourself warily eyeing the major characters that haven’t sung yet: “Michelle Williams. She’s bound to sing something. So there’s at least that to sit through.”
Williams plays Barnum’s wife, Charity, a woman of means who marries Barnum when he has nothing. The role is an interesting test for Williams’ abilities, not because the role is strong but because it’s weak. The movie gives her nothing to play but happiness and devotion; yet Williams expands and fills the emptiness, so that we believe in Charity’s intelligence and probity, and in her estimation of her husband as a grand fellow.
But every time the movie begins to get interesting, all at once a funny look will cross a character’s face — you know, that odd little expression somewhere between hope and indigestion. Then the music filters in, the awful singing starts, and the audience must ask itself some questions: Bathroom? Popcorn? Or sit there and take it?
In all of “The Greatest Showman,” there are only two musical numbers that are worth sitting through. The first is “Never Enough,” for the vocal pyrotechnics of Loren Allred, who is the voice on the soundtrack singing for the Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson who plays the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. And the second is “Rewrite the Stars,” sung by Zac Efron and Zendaya, which is of note for the uniqueness of the staging. Zendaya plays a trapeze artist, so as the two sing about their relationship and the challenges they face as an interracial couple in the 19th century, she flies around the room.
As Phillip Carlyle, Barnum’s right-hand man, Efron is an adequate singer and a better than adequate dancer, but half the time he’s dancing next to Jackman, and Jackman is the one to watch. He’s someone no one can help watching. In fact, Jackman is so good at selling this material that he ends up making its weakness stand out in sharper relief. In that way, he almost makes it worse by fully realizing it. We know that these songs will never be performed as well, and they’re still dreadful.
Yet in another way, having an actor as talented and likable as Jackman definitely helps. “The Greatest Showman” is the rare case of a movie that is truly wretched without being for one moment obnoxious.
‘THE GREATEST SHOWMAN’
Starring:Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams and Rebecca Ferguson
Rating: PG for thematic elements, including a brawl
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Barton Creek, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse & Eatery, Pflugerville 20, Southpark, Westgate