Michael Gracey's high-energy musical The Greatest Showman is a crowd-pleaser... only, it's aimed squarely at a specific crowd who'll appreciate it more than the rest of us.
That crowd is "Theater Folk," capped for emphasis, and Gracey -- along with his go-for-broke cast of show-tune belters -- dials every ounce of enthusiasm into The Greatest Showman so that the Broadway enthusiasts who buy tickets will dance up the aisles on their way out to their cars, downloading the movie's soundtrack on their phones on the way. This movie is ripped straight from the diary pages of middle school theater geeks around the globe, and that crowd will eat this up with a sugary spoon.
The rest of us, however, will appreciate the songs (this movie is brimming with infectious showstoppers) and admire the effort of the insanely talented cast while also noticing that the story bridging each musical number is thin, predictable, cliché and more than a little sappy. There's an inch of show-biz cheese baked around the entirety of The Greatest Showman, and no amount of show-boaty toe-tapping by Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya or their energetic co-stars can fully erase the hollow feeling you'll encounter when you try and recall the earnest Greatest Showman minutes after the credits have rolled.
It's going to sell a million soundtracks, though. That, I can guarantee.
The movie serves as a biopic of P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a broke but inventive showman who risks it all -- and suffers severe growing pains -- to establish a circus of special talents meant to entertain. The movie plays fast and loose with the specific details of Barnum's early life, rise to fame, eventual collapse and inevitable re-emergence -- anyone waiting for an in-depth Barnum biopic will need to keep waiting. All Greatest Showman is eager to get to, instead, is the next musical number. This is because director Michael Gracey knows that he has a songbook by the Tony- and Oscar-winning twosome of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land), and a gifted cast of performers in Jackman, Efron, Zendaya, Michelle Williams, Keala Settle and more at his disposal. And when they click, Greatest Showman really soars.
There are jaw-dropping numbers sprinkled through Greatest Showman, a movie that fully embraces the musical genre and all of its trappings. Scenes stop cold so that characters -- from bearded ladies to gorgeous trapeze artists -- can burst out into up-tempo songs about failing to fit in, or finding your place in this crazy world. The music has a pop-radio hip-hop tone to it, with electronic beats and swelling choruses replacing traditional Broadway tempos. But for this gooey and brightly colored package, it works. Weeks after my screening, I still cue up anthems such as "The Other Side," "This Is Me," "A Million Dreams" and the opening number, "The Greatest Show."
It's those scenes that occur between the songs that fall flat, and routinely pull The Greatest Showman back down to Earth. As entertaining as the song-and-dance spectacle can be in Greatest Showman, the movie can't inject life into flaccid dramatic subplots that exist away from the circus. A love-triangle sidebar involving Barnum and a talented singer (Rebecca Ferguson) exists only to drive an incredulous wedge between Barnum and his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams, who somehow looks bored in an anything-but-boring exercise). Late in the game, Gracey and the screenwriters try to inject drama by turning townsfolk against Barnum's "freaks," but the conflict rises out of nothing and adds less to the overall story.
No, The Greatest Showman is better off when it's bombastically belting out memorable tunes and begging the audience to bop along in their seats. And that happens often. Jackman, as expected, attacks the role of Barnum with the same reckless enthusiasm he brings to virtually every part. A romantic dance between Zac Efron and Zendaya set to "Rewrite the Stars" will guarantee repeat business from the teen demographic. And a few months from now, as you are still playing this soundtrack on Spotify, you might be tempted to give The Greatest Showman one more try, because the music's so good that the rest of the movie can't really be THAT bad. Could it? Maybe wait until it's on DVD, so you can skip right to each musical number, and enjoy them on repeat for an eternity.