THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.