In the same week that Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton provoked a fast and furious backlash from the Twitterati after chiding his nephew for not conforming to gender stereotypes – “Boys don’t wear princess dresses” he said on an Instagram video post which has since been Insta-deleted – comes a timely celebration of “freaks”, “oddities” and “spooks”. Or as P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) less offensively put it, “humanity”. Unfortunately, the adjective in the title is not one I would use to describe the screenplay by Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City) and Bill Condon (Chicago, Dreamgirls) which is more grating than “greatest”.
The musical numbers by the Oscar-winning songwriters of La La Land’s “City of Stars”, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are flashy but forgettable. The choreography and staging by debut feature director Michael Gracey is slick and intricate, but the set pieces are small in scale and lack the wow factor. The second number in particular, a love song between the young Barnum and his future wife Charity, is twee and shallow, coming as it does out of nowhere, before the characters have been properly introduced. And the outsiders who make up the travelling circus – a bearded lady, a midget and the wolf man to name but three – are far too earnest and would have benefited from taking the mickey out of themselves and one another.
After an unconvincing start, however, the film almost snatches victory out of the lip-syncing jaws of defeat. Jackman excels as Barnum; singing and dancing and acting to the highest of standards. Zac Efron and Zendaya’s teasing trapeze act sizzles with desire. And Keala Settle as the bearded lady Lettie Lutz gives a rousing performance of the Golden Globe-nominated song “This Is Me”. It’s just a pity that, for the most part, the film like Lewis Hamilton on the grid is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”