The Greatest Showman (2017)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Custom-made for the whole family, The Greatest Showman is a movie that will dazzle and amaze a lot of moviegoers.
Hugh Jackman was kind of born to play this role. As a singer, actor, and centerpiece, he more than gives us a P.T. Barnum we can enjoy and watch with ease.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul write fantastic compositions, crafting a soundtrack that stands with and apart from the film it was written for.
First rule of The Greatest Showman is we don't dig deep on this whatsoever. Seriously, keep it surface-level people. And don't read about Barnum's history. It ruins a lot of what we are told here.
You hate musicals. Don't get them. Don't understand why we sing in movies. And cannot allow yourself to escape into a world where musicals can tell a story.
Themes such as infidelity, interracial romance, dishonesty, and the balancing act between celebration and exploitation may lead to some interesting conversations on the ride home. Although, if we follow the first rule of The Greatest Showman then...no problems!
A friend of mine refuses to watch musicals – live action or animated. “People don’t stop and sing in real life – why would I ever want to watch that on screen?” he has repeatedly told me. When I mention that transformers do not exist in real life, and superheroes were created in comic books, he glares at me and tells me that’s different. He did give La La Land a look last year, at my request, and proceeded to tell me that there should have been people arrested for their disruption of other people’s vehicles and property in the opening number and thought Ryan Gosling was a jerk and should never sing again.
Said friend may be indicative of an increasingly pessimistic tone when it comes to not just pop culture, but perhaps society in general. We just appear angrier and more outraged all the time. We scrutinize things in a knee-jerk, push-or-pull manner and decide in seconds what we like and dislike and then die on a hill for those immediate responses. There is no discourse. We cannot allow ourselves to sit back and just be entertained. We are either “right” or “wrong”, demonized for that marginalization, and then we go find the next thing to love or hate…and so on and so on.
I mention all of this because, over at the multiplex, right before Christmas, comes Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman, an over-the-top, bombastic, circus-style celebration of American idealism and “aww shucks” enthusiasm. Our ringleader is Hugh Jackman, portraying P.T. Barnum, with an impressive cast of actors surrounding him, and music from La La Land’s Oscar-winning songwriters Benj Pasek & Justin Paul.
Rated PG, and custom-made for the whole family, The Greatest Showman wants to entertain and whisk you away to a time-bending tale set in the 1850’s, with ten contemporary, Broadway-meets-Top 40, radio-ready songs amplifying the soundtrack. We have dazzling set pieces, lavish dance sequences, and gorgeous production values giving us more movie than we could ever ask for.
Gracey’s film, with Jackman mid-ring, repeatedly shouts at us “Are you not entertained?” And, truth be told, how can you not be?
Wearing its heart devoutly, defiantly on its sleeve, The Greatest Showman is imperfect - sloppy with melodrama, trying way too hard to fit everything it wants to say into the film’s 105 minutes. The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon is not sharp, rushing randomly and off-time, trying to get to the next musical number.
There is a lot here to criticize and the melodrama can become wearisome. How…many…times…does Barnum have to try and prove himself to wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and her parents, even after he is making copious amounts of money, bought her a mansion, is a huge celebrity, and helped raise two impossibly perfect young daughters?
Jackman plays Barnum as an inherently good, but flawed person, carrying that chip squarely on his shoulders, easily swayed by the dazzle and glamour money can provide, but also a man who provides safety and protection to the marginalized and vulnerable people in society.
That Barnum realized that dishonesty is not a barrier to success, is all part of the show. In a great montage, we see Barnum discover “The Bearded Lady” (Keala Settle), an adult man in a child’s body (Sam Humphrey), a giant, a “dog boy”, a man tattooed everywhere, Siamese twins, and an African-American trapeze artist (Zendaya), among others.
As the audiences roll in, Barnum draws playwright and producer Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) into the fold. Enamored with Barnum’s world, he also becomes smitten with Zendaya’s character. The potential of an interracial romance, in an intolerant time, gets plenty of real estate from Bicks and Condon’s screenplay, but fails to explore any other societal ills commonplace in 1850’s New York City (including those of Barnum himself, but never mind all of that…)
Pasek and Paul are the real deal, their music proves again be undeniably catchy and the soundtrack is fantastic – even apart from the film. Lyrically, they do much of what Bicks and Condon cannot seem to do – they drive the movie forward. Mostly, the songs serve great purpose in propelling us along and the show-stopping mid-film number, “This Is Me”, performed by Settle and members of the cast is likely going to be a nominee come Oscar time.
Jackman is great in this role, and he can be so enigmatic and charismatic, that we can easily gloss over the film’s bigger issues. Somehow, Jackman’s commanding turn allows us to forgive Barnum for being so easy to get lost in his own fantasy world. We give him a pass when celebrity and wealth blinds him. However, a subplot involving Barnum championing and promoting singer Jenny Lind – “The Swedish Nightingale” (Rebecca Ferguson as actor, Loren Allred as vocalist), and touring with her across the country is alarmingly mishandled. When the business relationship comes to an immediate end, we all see this coming before Barnum does and he looks aloof, silly, and a bit dumb to the ways of the world.
And yet despite all of these issues, I walked out smiling and singing that soundtrack. On the way home, I thought of my friend who hates musicals. How would he respond in the film’s first five minutes, watching a brilliant opening number, which feels like Broadway brought to the big screen. What would he think watching Zac Efron and Zendaya hit you right in the feels with their soaring ballad “Rewrite the Stars”? (Spoiler alert: he wouldn’t make it that far.)
The Greatest Showman plays with you. It isn’t quite honest with its themes, relies heavy on melodrama, and uses smoke and mirrors to try and blind you from its deficiencies.
But man oh man, does this thing entertain you. And by accomplishing that, and that alone, Barnum would agree that everyone comes out a winner in the end.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn.
Director: Michael Gracey
Written by: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon (screenplay); Jenny Bicks (story).
Release Date: December 20, 2017
20th Century Fox