By Eleanor Ringel Cater
There are those of us who will go see Hugh Jackman in anything. And I mean, anything.
Alas, “The Greatest Showman,” starring Jackman as 19th-century impresario, P. T. Barnum, is more like nothing. A showy, confused, big hunk of nothing.
Barnum, who coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” is a ripe subject for a movie. Part scoundrel, part master of the razzle-dazzle, he was as well known for his scams (an elderly African-American woman he passed off as George Washington’s 160-year-old nurse) as he was for his assortment of born-this-way freaks (most famously, perhaps, the celebrated midget, General Tom Thumb, who counted Queen Victoria among his admirers).
Barnum’s stock-in-trade was humbug — some of it harmless, some of it not — all of it consumed with great enthusiasm by audiences who flocked to his museum of “curiosities” in New York and to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
If Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy, wasn’t your style, maybe the Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, was. A hirsute guy with a rare disease or a world-class opera singer — as long as people paid to see them, it was all pretty much the same to Barnum. As he says to Tom Thumb, people are going to stare at him regardless; why not get paid for it?
For some reason, “The Greatest Showman” showcases Barnum as a star-spangled dreamer, with sawdust and tinsel in his blood and a knack for entertainment in his sequined soul.
The movie begins with his impoverished childhood where, despite their differences in social status, he and rich-girl Charity fall in love. Over her family’s huffy objections, they marry and he promises her a fancy life in a fancy mansion. Which, in due time, he delivers.
Of course, she (now Michelle Williams, totally wasted) loves him for himself. And, yes, for his dreams and his big heart and open mind (he’s as tolerant of people of color as he is of bearded ladies). And on and on and on and on and on and on and….
Jackman is so talented, so endlessly charming, he almost makes the movie work. Plus, he looks fabulous in a top hat and cut-away coat. But at heart, “The Greatest Showman” is a familiar bit of hokum, sanitized and trite, too eager to please and too unchallenging to hold our attention.
“I want to create a place where people can see things they’ve never seen before,” Barnum insists. Unfortunately, you won’t find that here.