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There was a great movie somewhere inside 'The Greatest Showman'

There is a fine, maybe great, movie inside "The Greatest Showman." Unfortunately, it's hemmed in on all sides by the musical that it is (which was written by Pasek and Paul, previously responsible for "La La Land.")

This isn't the first Barnum musical. The great movie it could have been was, at long last, the great and completely persuasive Hollywood movie biography of P.T. Barnum, one of the most fascinating figures in American cultural history. Starring as Barnum, they have Hugh Jackman, who's been making zillions at the megaplex unsheathing Wolverine. When Jackman said goodbye to his identifying role it was in "Logan" a surprisingly terrific and dramatic film.

He was more than ready to carry off a stunning P.T. Barnum. The trouble is that dedicated performers in musical theater--of whom Jackman is definitely one--can almost always be seduced into doing a musical no matter what the other possibilities.

You can imagine a great Barnum movie that might have had more in common with Tod Browning's classic "Freaks" or David Lynch's sublime "The Elephant Man" than this, which has all the exuberant, all-embracing optimism people expect from musical theater.

Barnum was fascinating from almost any angle. His influence was immense. In the strangest and most haunting bestselling book ever written in Buffalo, Leslie Fiedler's 1977 "Freaks," Fiedler said the word "showman" didn't "suffice to describe him, though this was his description of himself, for he was a mass educator as well as a mass entertainer; and finally a magician, long after science thought it had neutralized nature.. [who revived] in adults that they are children before its variety and adventure. At the center of his vision of the world  are the Freaks."

Tom Thumb, his midget. The bearded lady. The Siamese Twins Chang and Eng. All the secret varieties of humanity that parents didn't usually tell their children about until Barnum openly displayed them as a kind of theatrical "family of man."

That's the version this musical is selling to you. The end result is a sweet, lovable mistake that could--indeed should--have indulged our modern appetite for the real, no matter how banal or squalid. (Reality TV is our 21st century "Freak Show") instead of the boisterous buncombe of musical theater.

But damned if there aren't touching moments all through "The Greatest Showman." No small factor is that one of its co-authors was Bill Condon, a fine filmmaker and film writer previously known for "Gods and Monsters," "Kinsey," "Dreamgirls" and "Beauty and the Beast."

The trouble with telling Barnum's story as an exhilarating musical is that at every big dramatic turn, the drama is subsumed by the music. And that puts an enormous burden on the new musical score, which is by no means bad but by no means equal to events either.

It's more than a pity that none of Barnum's "Freaks" is allowed to be much of a differentiated individual in a movie that ultimately disparages him for opting to promote "Swedish nightingale" Jenny Lind and life along the swells over the original people who made him famous.

So we have Michelle Williams as Barnum's loving wife, understandably hurt when her husband goes touring America with Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson). And for those under 35, Zac Efron and Zendaya are in the cast as star-crossed lovers.

The sweetness, though, that makes so much of this better than it probably had a right to be also makes it far from disastrous that it's so much less than it could have been.

 

"The Greatest Showman"

Three stars out of four

Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron and Zendaya in Michael Garcey's musical about P.T. Barnum and everything he did to create what Americans call "show business." 105 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements.

 

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