Tuesday, March 16, 2021

“The Prestige” and “The Greatest Showman”: Hugh Jackman Struts His Stuff

 Hugh Jackman has had a varied career on both stage and screen. He’s ranged from singing the lead in Oklahoma! to flashing his claws as Wolverine. Though often cast as a nice guy, he effectively revealed an oh-so-devious side as a Long Island school superintendent in TV’s 2019 drama, Bad Education. But his personal brand of panache really comes forth in two movies from earlier in this century. In both The Prestige (2006) and The Greatest Showman (2017), he has the opportunity to shamelessly strut his stuff, reveling in his talent for self-display. One is a serious drama and the other a musical. Both have their moments, but both are ultimately maddening to experience.

 I was surprised to discover that in The Prestige, Jackman was billed on screen ahead of Christian Bale (who had not yet, of course, won an Oscar). The two play arch-rival illusionists plying their trade in Victorian England, with Jackman so obsessed with learning the secret behind Bale’s “transported man” finale that he sacrifices everything (including the love of Scarlett Johansson) to attain his goal. It’s a jolly good premise for a drama, with lots of angst and stage trickery to tantalize the viewer, and I admit it builds to quite a smashing conclusion, based on a very clever, very unexpected reveal. (The term “the prestige,” we’re told at both the beginning and the end of the film, refers to the surprise third act of a stage magician’s every trick.)

 The problem? I suspect we have to blame it on Christopher Nolan, who both co-wrote and directed The Prestige after Memento and before The Dark Knight. The film is an adaptation of a British novel, but I gather Nolan couldn’t resist adding his own creative touches. One is the introduction of Tesla (the scientist, not the car), whose contribution to the plot still has me baffled. By participating indirectly in Jackman’s character’s ultimate stage act, Tesla apparently enables a real-life miracle that is key to unlocking some of what we see at the end of the film. Unfortunately for me, the key didn’t fit any lock I could find. It’s no fun watching a movie, however twisty it might be, in which one ends up saying, “Huh?” 

 If The Prestige is overly complicated, The Greatest Showman is overly simple. Jackman must have believed strongly in this material, because he’s credited as one of the film’s producers. But this super-streamlined life of P.T. Barnum is predictable from the get-go. There’s some imaginative staging, but the characters are two-dimensional: what a waste of the talented Michelle Williams as Barnum’s ever-loving wife! I’m a fan of movie musicals, but the songs here seem to keep striking the same note: lots of anthems about the importance of dreams, and magic, and community, and self-respect. (OK, there’s one rousing choral number, the Oscar-nominated “This is Me,” ebulliently sung by the freaks and geeks of Barnum’s circus. Frankly, I’m not sure what I think of the basic message that physical deformity is cool. Anyway, didn’t the real Barnum exploit –rather than exalt – these social outcasts?) 

 As for Jackman, he sings, he dances, he struts, he romances his wife and tickles the fancy of his adoring children: through it all, he seems to be having a simply marvelous time. I’m told that a lot of the original moviegoers left the theatre very happy indeed. For me, on the other hand, the final fadeout (following a bigger-than-big final number) was a blessed relief. Next time, I’ll avoid the bombast and stick to Hugh Jackman as a suave but surreptitiously deadly school administrator. 


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