Barnum (and Jackman) turn on a family show

December 26, 2017

THE Greatest Showman is a good old-fashioned wholesome PG musical that is also a scintillatingly flashy immersion in up-to-the-minute razzmatazz.

It takes the life of PT Barnum, the anything-goes circus impresario of the 1800s, who is played with irresistible effervescence by Hugh Jackman, and turns him into a saintly huckster-maestro who invented the spirit of modern showbiz by daring to follow his dream.

At the same time, the film takes Barnum’s infamous believe-it-or-not attractions – Tom Thumb, Dog Boy, Tattoo Man, the Bearded Lady – and makes them over into sensitive, enlightened outcasts, a kind of 19th-century freak-show gallery of identity politics.

Yet The Greatest Showman wants to give you a splashy good time, and does, and it’s got something that takes you by surprise: a genuine romantic spirit.

The numbers are shot like electromagnetic dance-pop music videos, and to say that they sizzle with energy wouldn’t do them justice – they’re like a hypodermic shot of joy to the heart.

You know you’re watching conventional chorus-line-with-a-beat flimflam, all decorating a bit of a tall tale, but that’s the ultra-Hollywood pleasure of The Greatest Showman.

It’s a biopic that forges its own uplifting mythology, and if you think back on it when it’s over and feel, maybe just a little bit, like you’ve been had — well, that’s part of its sleight-of-hand charm.

PT Barnum would have been suckered by it, and would have approved.

The movie, shot with richly lacquered pizzazz by Seamus McGarvey, opens with a spectacular shot of Jackman’s Barnum, silhouetted under the rafters in his signature long coat and top hat, looking like as pure a creature of theatrical bravado as the M.C. in “Cabaret.” And though “The Greatest Showman” offers a much more

family-friendly vision (this is a film about the sleazy bottom rungs of the entertainment world that you could easily take young children to), it conjures the spirit of Bob Fosse — his imperious snap and verve — in the sexy precision of its choreography, and in its vision of a lowly circus that titillates and thrills because it demonstrates that all the world’s a stage.

The basic storyline, however, is tidy in its symmetries, made with a pleasing neo-traditional studio-system squareness. That first number, “The Greatest Show,” with its wild and primitive beat merging into a powerful hook, breaks off after about a minute, leaving us salivating for more stage ecstasy. The movie then flashes back to the 1820s, when Phineas Taylor Barnum is just a kid (played by Ellis Rubin, who suggests a hungry young Pete Townshend), traveling to rich people’s houses along with his tailor father, and watching the two of them get treated like servants. At the home of a particularly snobbish couple, the Halletts (Frederic Lehne and Kathryn Meisle), Phineas meets their daughter, Charity (Skylar Dunn), and the soaring duet “A Million Dreams,” with its creamy pristine harmonies, establishes The Greatest Showman as one of those movies in which a couple fall in love as children, and the enchanted innocence of their connection lets us know that that love will be forever.

■Owen Gleiberman is chief critic with Variety

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