The Greatest Showman is a movie musical account of the early years of P.T. Barnum, refashioned here into a Horatio Alger figure who came from nothing, married the rich man’s daughter, and used his wits and cunning to build a convention-defying sideshow empire. Actors you already knew could sing (Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya) do so quite nicely while others you maybe didn’t know about surprise with a lovely natural voice (Michelle Williams, Broadway-tested thanks to a Cabaret revival) or impressively dubbed one (Rebecca Ferguson, whose singing is provided by Loren Allred). The songs from the La La Land crew lean catchy Top 40 in composition. You suspect the entire time that everything the movie is telling you about Barnum is probably Hollywood bullshit (and it absolutely is), yet you don’t totally mind indulging them because, well, it’s Christmas and here’s something to make you feel good about the world.
That’s the charitable view of The Greatest Showman.
Here’s a somewhat more cynical view:
The Greatest Showman is so eager to entertain us it almost hurts and so desperate to preach about tolerance that it bends history to its will and loses complete track of a far more complicated and thus more interesting story. My screening came with an opening message from Hugh Jackman and director Michael Gracey thanking us for seeing their movie on the biggest screen possible, but as David Ehrlich joked in his review, “Forget the multiplexes; this is a movie that feels like it was made to be screened on a Jumbotron in the middle of Times Square as a shimmering advertisement for its own existence.” You feel like applauding after every song and dance not to celebrate the moment but instead because you sense everyone on screen needs you to be wowed. If you clap maybe they’ll stop always dancing like they’re about to attack the camera.
Just think of its as Overeager Sincerity: The Musical, where every single song needs to be an epic ode to outsiders and dreamers and every emotion has to be heightened to almost comical extremes. For example, in a film which features a bearded lady, Siamese twins, and an Asian dwarf dressed up like Napoleon the most peculiar thing on display is actually how Michelle Williams (playing Jackman’s slavishly devoted wife) always seems to be manically smiling as if she has a secret ether addiction. Along with Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island, she’s another prominent actress in 2017 to star in a major film where the one note from the director seems to have been: “Smile like you’re so damn happy it might literally kill you.”
The real Charity Barnum was not quite the idealized wife she’s portrayed as being here. But that’s hardly surprising. Everything about The Greatest Showman is a classic case of the Hollywoodification of a complex historical story (as detailed at historyvshollywood.com). Why bother with the messy details of history when Barnum can be deified and made into a lovable huckster with endless ambition, a tragic past, and ahead-of-his-time views on acceptance? Toss in a little bit of Music Man here, a Once-style drinking song there, and you’ve got yourself a new musical hero.
The script thinks it is being brave in extending him complications in the form of a mid-movie flirtation with someone other than his wife (Rebecca Ferguson’s fictionalized version of European singer Jenny Lind) and momentary rejection of his circus folk in favor of the far more acceptable Lind. However, [spoiler] all is forgiven in the end and they all love each other again.
Any talk of him profiting off the disenfranchised or exploiting them is either put into the mouth of an odious theater critic and thus instantly dismissed or simply referenced and then shoved under the rug. He even gets a completely fictional business partner (Efron) and black trapeze artist (Zendaya) just so there can be a subplot about a possibly doomed interracial romance. The truth of the matter is immaterial to the film’s transparent goal to celebrate the art of the show and make an overly obvious statement about inclusiveness.
The thing is, those aren’t inherently bad goals, and the film doesn’t completely fail to pull them off. Almost despite myself, I welled up during certain songs even as I laughed at others, like when a bartender becomes a silent third dance partner during Jackman and Efron’s drinking song for no real reason. There is much here to be cynical about, but, well, it’s Christmas. This movie wants so badly to say something profound about the world and to just make us feel good. Its central song is an empowering call to arms for any ostracized “other,” even though those characters are repeatedly sidelined in their own movie in favor of Jackman, Williams, Zendaya, Efron and Ferguson’s more presentable faces. Yet the brilliance here is that you can’t help but get caught up in individual moments like Keala Settle (as the Bearded Lady) belting out “This Is Me” with the mesmerizing force of a hurricane.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I am reminded of something Christian Bale once said of another Hugh Jackman character in another movie: “Go easy on the poor chap. He does try so very hard.” That’s The Greatest Showman to a T. It’s a movie that does try so very hard. Whether you go easy on it, though, will depend on how much you’re willing to indulge its very loose hold on history and clear desperation to say something positive about the world while making you stomp your feet and sing along. Heck, there are actual call and response parts built into the songs where we, like those in the Barnum circus audience, are supposed to sing back empty-headed patter like “This is the greatest show!” Eh. “Great” is seriously stretching it. Let’s just settle for good.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Why do Hugh Jackman musical characters keep getting caught stealing bread? First Les Mis, now Greatest Showman.
- The “For show business? I’ve never heard of it”/”Because I just invented it” Efron-Jackman exchange from the trailer is not in the movie.