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Movie review: 'Greatest Showman' is a decent musical, but a conflicted biopic

“THE GREATEST SHOWMAN” — 2½ stars — Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson; PG (thematic elements including a brawl); in general release

It makes perfect sense to turn the life story of P.T. Barnum into a lavish musical with songs, dance numbers and all sorts of colorful visual stimulation. At the same time, the genre has a way of leaving Barnum’s complex and conflicted story feeling oversimplified.

Michael Gracey’s “The Greatest Showman” opens with Barnum’s near-destitute childhood as the son of a tailor (Will Swenson, "The Singles Ward"). His father’s primary client is a wealthy man named Mr. Hallett (Fred Lehne), and right away Barnum (Ellis Rubin) has an eye for Hallett's daughter Charity (Skylar Dunn). Naturally, Hallett doesn’t approve, but one time-traveling montage later, Barnum and Charity — played as adults by Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams — are about to run away to New York City together to chase their dreams.

Initially, those dreams take the form of a museum, opened on a leap of faith after Barnum’s straight job bottoms out. Business is slow until he feels inspired to fill his museum with society’s outcasts — a singing bearded lady (Lettie Lutz), a little person (Sam Humphrey), an African-American acrobat named Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and so on.

People soon start flocking to the freak show, and negative publicity from snooty critics such as James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) only helps business. To boost his credibility, Barnum teams up with a successful and wealthy playwright named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), and he eventually sets his sights on the celebrated European opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) as his key to legitimacy.

It’s pretty obvious where things are going. Barnum’s quest for social acceptance leads him to ignore the performers who got his efforts off the ground, and his association with Lind eventually strains his marriage. Will Barnum mend his ways? Will the performers win the respect of the masses? One thing is for sure: Everyone will sing and dance their way to the final credits.

On its surface, “Greatest Showman” is a fairly routine story about chasing your dreams and overcoming adversity. If you go in looking for some decent musical numbers and a showy pick-me-up, you’ll probably come away satisfied.

The trouble is when you start paying closer attention to how “Greatest Showman,” like so many productions these days, attempts to interpret a past era through the values and perspective of a contemporary lens. Whether you enjoy watching 19th-century characters dance and perform to 21st-century pop stylings is a mere matter of personal taste, but Gracey seems to want to twist a past era to fit the attitudes of modern times, and sometimes the results just feel off.

The center of this effort is Barnum, whose effort to use the shock value of his performers to make money is difficult to see as anything aside from simple exploitation. “Greatest Showman” takes pains to spin this effort in the best way possible, but it’s a tough sell.

For many audiences, “Greatest Showman” will be evaluated by different criteria, since its music comes from some of the same people behind last year’s Christmas musical event, “La La Land.” The short answer is no, “Greatest Showman” is not as good as “La La Land.” It’s good enough to make for an entertaining musical, and it’s trying very hard to sell a powerful message, but for all its merits, “The Greatest Showman’s” different pieces don’t fit together quite so well.

“The Greatest Showman” is rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl; running time: 105 minutes.