“The Greatest Showman” (PG)
Sometimes plans with good intent can backfire. Take my predilection for knowing as little as possible about movies before seeing them. I don't watch trailers; beyond knowing a title, who's acting in the movie, and who directed it, I still thrive on the joy of being in the dark about anything else when the lights go down.
Of course, assumptions are often made. The title "The Greatest Showman," and the practically unavoidable proliferation of posters showing Hugh Jackman dressed up in flashy ringmaster attire, strongly suggest it's about circus impresario P.T. Barnum, whose rags-to-riches story would be great fodder for a biopic.
Yes, it is about Barnum and Jackman playing him was a good enough match for me. It didn't matter that I'd never heard of the director Michael Gracey.
But, safe in my little bubble of unawareness, I'd also not heard that "The Greatest Showman" is a musical. Oh, no! With rare exceptions, I do not like musicals. They generally annoy me. Those rare exceptions? "One from the Heart," "Phantom of the Paradise,” and "La La Land" are among them and I don't know why. "Rent," "Chicago," "Les Mis?" Headache inducing (for me, but lauded by others). Go figure.
So, when Hugh Jackman launched into a by-the-numbers, Broadway-like song at the start of "The Greatest Showman," any excitement and anticipation I had faded away. In short order, when the film's second song arrived, sounding similar, and going on and on, a headache began brewing and I had thoughts of fleeing the theater and bagging the review.
But it's been five years since I did that, ironically for "Les Mis," which starred Hugh Jackman. I was determined to tough this one out. Too bad that, aside from a strong, confident, winning performance by Jackman as Barnum, who builds an entertainment empire from nothing, and an equally robust one from Zac Efron, as his business partner Phillip Carlyle, both of whom are graceful dancers, "The Greatest Showman" is far from great.
Its strongest points are found in the acting, even from the actors in roles of lesser characters; and the singing (I've got nothing against singing, as long as the songs are good) is top shelf. Kudos go to the vocal pipes of singer-actress Rebecca Ferguson as opera singer Jenny Lind and singer-actress Keala Settle as the bearded lady Lettie Lutz.
But the story I was hoping for is, as necessity demands in an under-two-hour movie, skimmed over in order to make room for the film's plentiful supply of mostly loud and mostly lifeless songs that are supposed to tell us of the hopes and dreams inside the characters' heads. Here's some more irony: They were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Oscar-winning team who gave us such memorable songs in "La La Land." Go figure.
A momentary positive note: There's some very cool choreography, some of the best is seen on a rooftop near the beginning. But as the film progresses, the dance moves, along with the way they're photographed, all seem to be of one piece.
A few more good words: The film zips along nicely when Barnum, out of work but full of ideas, starts meeting up with performers, make that "oddities,” who he thinks people would pay money to see. Enter that bearded lady and the "Tattoo Man," "Dog Boy," and both the world's "Heaviest" and "Tallest" men.
The story's dramatic element is that Barnum's show is a sham, but the public eats it up. Also, and explained to lesser degree, Barnum is consumed by his constant self-promotion and desire for fame, all at the cost of his family, whom he loves, but unknowingly ignores.
A hint of philandering is thrown in, but that plot thread goes nowhere. Neither does Barnum's brief entry into high society, to the detriment of his relationship with the oddball performers who made him what he was.
But if there's an emotional dilemma in the film, it's resolved before it can even take hold. The same can't be said about the movie's general problems. They remain upfront from beginning to end.