American Idle: Hugh Jackman Stars in Big-top Flop
By: Matt Brunson
Circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum may have led a fascinating life, but you wouldn’t know it from The Greatest Showman, a broad and broad-minded musical that’s closer to High School Musical than Freaks on the pop-culture scale.
Some engaging if highly anachronistic songs provide the only pep in a big-budget production that was oddly entrusted to a director whose only previous credits were helming T.V. commercials and creating visual effects for little-seen pictures. That might explain why Michael Gracey’s staging of the musical numbers lacks flair, finesse or even spatial symmetry. As for the script by T.V. vet Jenny Bicks and Dreamgirls writer-director Bill Condon, it offers only pop psychology in its look at P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as a troubled overachiever and a politically correct framework that’s ultimately at odds with the more troubling aspects of its leading character and the time in which he lived. In this film’s fantasy world, prejudice is primarily practiced by a few burly drunks hovering around the edges — certainly, little exists in Barnum, presented here as a big-top patriarch whose wispy hints of bigotry vanish whenever one of his performers belts out another Top 40 wannabe.
Zac Efron and Zendaya provide some forbidden teeny-bopper romance that further drags the picture down, while Michelle Williams is given precious little to do as Barnum’s eternally patient wife. Jackman is aptly cast in the title role, and he would have been sensational in a darker, warts-and-all interpretation of the character. Instead, he’s asked merely to coast in a splashy but shallow picture that might as well have been called American Idle.
Casting famous actors as famous historical figures often put the performer at an extreme disadvantage, since it means they have to work twice as hard to put over the same feat of duplicity as less recognizable thespians tackling similarly iconic figures. Then-unknown Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi? No problem. Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock? Big problem.
In that respect, casting Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill seems like a risky gamble, given that both are known commodities. But Oldman, an actor who — let’s not forget — has already portrayed such disparate personalities as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald and Ludwig van Beethoven (to say nothing of such fictional mainstays as George Smiley and Count Dracula), proves to be up to the task in Darkest Hour, a satisfying dramatization of Churchill’s fledgling days as the British Prime Minister.
Even operating under pounds of makeup required to convert the actor into the roly-poly elocutionist, it’s easy to initially spot Oldman peeking out. Yet as the movie progresses, Oldman effectively buries himself in the role, aided by the efforts of director Joe Wright and scripter Anthony McCarten to convey the urgency at hand — namely, that Adolf Hitler has already begun his march through Europe, and Churchill must decide whether to fight the bastard (his choice) or negotiate a treaty that will hopefully leave England untouched by Nazi destruction (the choice of many of his peers).
The historical highlights are on display: the dislike of Churchill by even those in his own party, the “miracle at Dunkirk” (also seen this year in not only Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk but also the sleeper pick Their Finest), and, of course, the famous speeches. The latter monologues truly allow Oldman to shine, delivering the words with such fervor and feeling that it quickly becomes clear that they elected the right man for the job.
It didn’t exactly require all the money in the world, but Sony nevertheless had to cough up a sizable chunk of change to reshoot certain scenes in All the Money in the World. Even with the decision coming less than two months before the film’s official release date, director Ridley Scott pulled it off, with Christopher Plummer effectively stepping in for the scandal-struck Kevin Spacey and co-stars Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg doing their part by returning to the filmic fold to redo their scenes. It’s an impressive example of Hollywood professionalism and efficiency — it’s just a shame the movie itself isn’t a bit more compelling.
The real-life framework remains intact: Miserly J. Paul Getty (Plummer), the richest man in the world, refuses to pay the $17 million ransom when his 16-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) is kidnapped while living in Italy. It’s a workable scenario, but the execution is often more arid and aloof than incisive and intriguing — worse, scripter David Scarpa (working from John Pierson’s 1995 book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty) must have felt the need to somehow pump up the volume, since the story takes some ridiculously fanciful turns (particularly during the third act) that would have made more sense on a vintage episode of Walker: Texas Ranger.
As Fletcher Chase, a former CIA agent who now serves as Getty’s hands-on advisor, Wahlberg is game but miscast — faring much better is Williams, who, as the kidnapped boy’s mom, brings conviction to what could easily have been a rote role. Still, it’s the last-minute replacement who saves the day — and the movie. Playing Getty as Scrooge writ large, Christopher Plummer delivers a superb performance, providing the part with the richness it requires.