Bil’s rating (out of 5): B.5. USA, 2017. Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox. Story by Screenplay by Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon. Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. Produced by Peter Chernin, Laurence Mark, Jenno Topping. Music by John Debney, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Joseph Trapanese. Production Design by Nathan Crowley. Costume Design by Ellen Mirojnick. Film Editing by Tom Cross, Robert Duffy, Joe Hutshing, Michael McCusker, Jon Poll, Spencer Susser. Academy Awards 2017. Golden Globe Awards 2017.
Up there with the important philosophical questions of history, right next to the meaning of life or the usefulness of morality, belongs a rumination on why the hell this movie was made and in such a strange and confused a manner. Hugh Jackman, reportedly fulfilling a years-long dream to film a biopic of the legendary, game-changing entertainer, plays P.T. Barnum, who dragged himself out of the poverty of being a tailor’s son and turned a risky real-estate venture into a career as show promoter that established the circus industry. Barnum marries his childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), goes into business with partner and performer Zac Efron (who rightly never seems to know what’s going on) and befriends the various “freaks” that he exploits for ticket sales in his show, defending himself against the snobbery of art critics who call him a fraud (a number of his performers were only faking their oddities) and the intolerance of religious mobs who believe that the presentation of “God’s mistakes” is a sin by insisting that he is only trying to entertain the hard-working citizens of London. A similar excuse can be made for this film as well, one that takes many liberties in its presentation of Barnum’s biography in the name of being dazzling and relevant to the modern age, employing a musical score chock full of some very pretty songs that result in something that is meant to be fun and frivolous. But is it? And why? If you’re going to Moulin Rouge the thing, then why bother making a movie about a real person and include any details about his life at all? And why use such modern-sounding songs? The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Oscar-winning scribes of the La La Land tunes, feel like they were written for a different project and slid into this one at the last minute. And why is so much of the dancing enhanced with visual effects? And why not just let Jackman look his age? The man is still a dish at 49 and if you’re not sticking close to historical fact than you don’t need to digitally smudge his face out to look younger, his tired eyes are charming and he’s still in great shape and playing someone who actually looked more like Karl Malden…but even more important, why does Jackman sound like he can’t sing any of the songs? The idea the film is trying to sell, of Barnum being a hero of inclusivity who celebrated people who were outsiders and outcasts, is ludicrous to say the least, and Michael Gracey might direct the whole thing without any substance because he has absolutely no idea how to deal with that particular central theme; then you get to a scene involving Queen Victoria that makes The BFG look like a documentary and you realize that he’s not trying to deal with anything. There’s no good reason to watch this movie, I’d call it a throwback to airheaded entertainment like The Greatest Show on Earth except Cecil B. DeMille cared about a good script even under the most inane of circumstances, but if you decide to go for it, do so for the unintentional laughs, which for me derive from the confused smile that Williams can’t wipe off her face for two straight hours, and then just get the soundtrack since the songs are great when removed from this very odd context.