A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2018


2017, PG-13, 139 mins.


Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum  /  Zac Efron as Phillip Carlyle  /  Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum  /  Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind  /  Zendaya as Anne Wheeler  /  Fredric Lehne as Mr. Hallett  /  Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as WD Wheeler  /  Paul Sparks as James Gordon Bennett

Directed by Michael Gracey  /  Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is, as far as musicals and biopics go, so trivially soft pedaled and rose covered that it almost feels like the movie screen that it was projected on was sprayed with disinfectant. 

Engineered for maximum crowd pleasing entertainment value while wholeheartedly ignoring some of the sketchier aspects of its subject matter's life and legacy, the film comes off more as a saccharine TV movie of the week than it does a sprawling and epically staged musical worthy of its budget, scale, and stars.  There are no doubts from me that its lead actor in Hugh Jackman is an unqualified movie star, not to mention that he's more than a capable singer (see LES MISERABLES), but even his awesome screen presence and sizable charm can't help this thematically empty and dramatically hollow musical. 

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN concerns the life and times of P.T. Barnum, that same one of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame that was also dubiously recognized for promoting many well staged hoaxes to eagerly paying and inquisitive spectators of the day.  Widely, but incorrectly, cited as coining the phrase "There's a sucker born every minute," Barnum is celebrated in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN as a figure of limitless ambition and forward drive, but the manner that the film seems to take a massive sidestep in exploring the darker underbelly of this questionable historical figure left an awfully bad taste in my mouth.  Unquestionably, Barnum's rise to power is the ultimate rags to riches story of personal empowerment, to be sure, but the fact that he, for lack of a better word, exploited freaks, children, the downtrodden and the mentally and physically disabled - not to mention what must have been sickening treatment of animals for his show - doesn't make for feel good entertainment.  This version of Barnum is shown as the consummate champion for recognizing the uniqueness of people that are different. 



Yup.  Sure.  Uh huh. 

I referred to this film earlier as part biopic, which is almost a tad misleading.  THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is a pretty paint-by-numbers and bare bones affair in terms of chronicling Barnum's life, which is fine tailored here to sermonize the notion that everyone is capable of achieving the American dream.  Born a remarkably poor son of a tailor, the film introduces us to Barnum as a fairly scrappy kid of the streets that begins to seriously crush on a local rich girl named Charity, who's mostly out of his reach and economic status.  Through a series of hastily cobbled together musical vignettes, the film quickly flashes forward to Barnum and Charity as adults (played by Jackman and Michelle Williams respectively), during which time the penniless showman-to-be manages to convince her snobby daughter to leave home and marry him.  Years pass and the couple become parents to two daughters (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely) and this tightly knit family seems like a loving and nurturing unit, but poverty and lack of occupational success is starting to sting Barnum's pride.  Desperate to finally provide for his family, Barnum decides to go on the offensive and start his own business ventures, the first of which includes a museum, of sorts, filled with macabre oddities that eventually evolves into the circus we know today.   

Cue the disgustingly inspirational song and dance numbers. 

To be fair, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is an endlessly handsome production that makes great usage of its opulent 19th Century period decor and costuming.  And, yes, Jackman has that thousand watt smile, rugged good looks, and never look back gumption that can make even the most wrongheaded production watchable (granted, he looks nothing like the real Barnum).  THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, if anything, is enthusiastically performed despite its creative and scripting indiscretions, and Jackman does what he can with the material given.  His co-star in Williams doesn't fare very well here, mostly seeing as she has very little palpable chemistry with him; the Oscar nominated actress seems pathetically saddled with an obligatory wife role that doesn't allow her much more to do than smile, look cherry and sing on cue...and not much else. 

The film's songs should have been a rousing highlight, especially considering that they were penned by LA LA LAND's superb tandem of Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, but very few that exist here are toe tapping delights, nor are they ones that you'll be joyously humming in the shower the next day after your screening.  The somewhat slack jawed direction by first timer Michael Gracey (whom previously made commercials and music videos) lacks the sweeping majesty of the finest big screen musicals that know the value of choreography and editorial flow.  The only real standout for me was "Rewrite the Stars", a love ballad performed by Zac Efron and Zendaya, the former who plays a high society business partner of Barnum's and the latter a trapeze artist in his circus.  During the sequence she swings high above him on her trapeze while he tries to climb up to meet her for a passionate embrace.  Efron and Zendaya bring modest dosages of sexual tension in this otherwise PG rated family fare, but their characters are so flimsily written that you have to remind yourself to care about them and/or their predicament. 

Actually, there's one more song I admired, arguably the film's catchiest is "This is Me!" sung with powerhouse vocals by the Tony nominated Keala Settle, appearing here as one of Barnum's "attractions" - the Bearded Lady.  The lyrics boast a rallying cry message of embracing yourself and the diversity of everyone, but for as wonderfully as it's performed it takes me to the ironic dark heart of Barnum that THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is so utterly afraid of addressing.  Barnum used ample smoke and mirror techniques to sell his attractions as the "greatest" of their time and era, but the film built around that is a seedy show in its own right that lacks honesty.  Barnum, by all accounts of the day, was in it for the money, and he used whomever and whatever he could - often falsely advertising people as freaks when they were elaborately staged fakes - to get ahead in business.  The Barnum of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN seems incredulously born our of strong moral fiber that steadfastly supported those that worked under him like family, but the film hammers home this laughably inaccurate portrait to the point of inspiring unintentional laughter.  Barnum was a limitlessly successful and controversial figure in American history, but THE GREATEST SHOWMAN never hints at the ethically dubious layers buried deep beneath its sanitized portrayal of this figure as a prideful man that stood for family and inclusivity. 

This film is also mercilessly long considering what a glossed over failure it is at superficially rendering its main protagonist.  THE GREATEST SHOWMAN - like its lead star in Jackman - tries hard - damn hard - to entertain and dazzle audiences, but the fractured natured of the narrative as a whole and the film's willful distancing of dealing with Barnum's problematic business practices left me at a cold arm's distance throughout; there are virtually no compelling beats to be had here.  The big screen musical is among one of my all time favorites genres and nothing sometimes is more purely delightful than experiencing one that both embraces and transcends it.  THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is a musical of some surface pleasures, but its hero worshipping of Barnum is both fundamentally wrong and distracting.  

Only a sucker that was born a minute ago would give in to this film's bait and switch carnival act.   

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