Not much of a show under Jackman's circus tent

"Don't fight it" goes the opening song of "The Greatest Showman," sung by Hugh Jackman. "It's coming for you, running at ya."

Hugh Jackman in a scene from “The Greatest Showman”

“Don’t fight it” goes the opening song of “The Greatest Showman,” sung by Hugh Jackman. “It’s coming for you, running at ya.”

“The Greatest Showman” is a one-hour-and-45-minute onslaught on the senses. It’s exhausting and messy. And that’s too bad, because Jackman really is one of the great showmen of our time. Give the man a stage and a song, and it’s near impossible not to love him. The movie? Not so much.

Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, the 19th-century businessman and politician‚ but a showman above all‚ who founded the Barnum & Bailey circus. 

One of the movie’s biggest problems is its desperate determination to contemporize everything. 

It’s not so much the casting of Zac Efron and Zendaya as young lovers, it’s that they and the others are given upbeat pop songs that would sound great on their own, but simply feel jarring when sung by 19th-century characters in period dress. It’s all the more frustrating given that the songs come from talented duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the lyrics for “La La Land” and the terrific score for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”

The film is a debut feature from director Michael Gracey, known for his work on commercials and music videos, and that’s telling, because it feels like a collection of slickly produced videos, tied together with a plot we’re not supposed to care too much about.

It does start off with a bang, with Jackman in a top hat and long red coat, wielding a cane and recalling the stylish emcee in “Pippin.” Then we go into flashback, meeting the young Barnum as a poor boy, a tailor’s son. He meets the angelic girl of his dreams in a fancy mansion, and resolves to marry her. 

Barnum loses his first job, and comes up with the idea of a museum of oddities. The first version is a bust. Then one of his little daughters tells him: “You need something alive.”

Barnum realizes his oddities need to be human: General Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Siamese twins. “They’re laughing anyway,” he tells one of them, “so why not get paid?” The place is a hit, and suddenly Barnum’s very wealthy.

But he needs something more: acceptance among the snobby elites. He convinces a young, patrician playwright, Philip (Efron), to join him in the business. They seal the deal in an energetic number set in a barroom. Then there’s a subplot with the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Barnum goes to Europe to persuade Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to tour America. The high-stakes enterprise, he reasons, will finally get him embraced by high society.

If there’s an eleven-o’clock number, it’s got to be “This Is Me,” ably sung by Broadway belter Keala Settle, a motivational anthem that seems meant to stop the show but sounds too familiar to really stir the spirits. “I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out,” the bearded lady sings, and alas, it’s an apt description of what this movie seems to be doing. Drowning us in pizazz and feel-good emotion, but not making us think, or learn. 

In the end, not much is happening under that circus tent.

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