December 11, 2017

CINEMA | Hugh Jackman Puts on 'The Greatest Showman'

Hugh Jackman Zendaya Michael Gracey | The Greatest Showman

Hugh Jackman is a great showman himself. However, sometimes his immense talent and charm can be hard to translate successfully into an onscreen role. His musical dramatization of infamous carnival barker P.T. Barnum is a wholly conventionally, pop-infused Hollywood biopic of the most predictable variety. The Greatest Showman is a cookie cutter musical biography of a very complex and troubling American businessman (founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus) made painfully family-friendly while all set to (admittedly catchy) contemporary show tunes in mid-1800s New York.

Australian commercial director Michael Gracey makes his feature debut and his lack of transitional skills are glaringly obvious and never more clear than the film's endless use of repetitive montages over and over again. The opening shot of a musical cue midstream is misguided just as the rushed introduction of Barnum's entire life leading up to his circus endeavours is.

The staging and setting of each number is superb, but the skill to piece all the showy elements of the film together just never works. It remains a disparate, often lifeless, yet energetically performed set of scenes, songs, dances, and choreography with jarring transitions from one to another. With music by La La Land composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the film draws such poor comparisons to that film's flawless use of performance and editing to transition in between music and drama.

The ever so talented and luminous Michelle Williams continues to be wasted. She plays the perfect, supportive wife (his childhood sweetheart) with the usual family arc used to motivate the life of a more important male figure. Jackman and her never quite bring their love story together despite both their wealth of talent and charisma.

Hugh Jackman Michael Gracey | The Greatest Showman

Some of the best scenes feature the glowing Rebecca Ferguson as famed Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind and they are captivating largely because her vocal performances are some of the only sequences directed without much fanfare or style. The camera merely captures her talent and presence without being over stylized or choreographed.

Zac Efron and Zendaya show up as unlikely lovers from very different backgrounds, but their lack of back stories is baffling. She is glowing and owns the screen despite given almost no depth or characterization other than her skin colour. Efron ably shows off his song and dance skills but he's introduced and elevated haphazardly without any character definition. Their supposed forbidden love story is mostly unearned and feels ever so lost.

Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon's script is so painfully conventional and paint-by-numbers with all the usual compacted hardships, struggles, triumphs, and redemptive moments of joy squeezed in undramatically. There's a also bizarre storyline involving a stuffy theatre critic (Paul Sparks) that awkwardly tries to elevate fandom and entertainment over critical or artistic analysis even in the face of naked human exploitation.

The Greatest Showman is a joyful enough experience, but the film could really be about anyone. Barnum's long, infamous history as a politician, purveyor of hoaxes, and American huckster are ignored for a safe but shallow and exhausting portrait of an idealist visionary. The cast of misfits and outcasts are used to artificially move forward a false musical narrative it simply never justifies.

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