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Review: The Greatest Showman (2017)

The Greatest Showman (2017)

Directed by: Michael Gracey

Premise: A musical about the life of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman). In early twentieth-century America, Barnum gathers people with unusual physical characteristics and makes them the featured attraction of his circus. 

What Works: The Greatest Showman is an example of a soundtrack that is much better than the film it is associated with. The movie includes an effective score by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese as well as songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Tunes like “This is Me” and “Greatest Show” and “Rewrite the Stars” are catchy and combine a contemporary pop and hip hop sound with a traditional Broadway style. Given what The Greatest Showman is trying to be, Hugh Jackman is a good choice to play P.T. Barnum. The movie imagines Barnum as a hustler with a heart of gold and Jackman is well cast in role. The relationship between a playwright played by Zac Efron and a trapeze artist played by Zendaya is sweet and gives the movie some gravitas; they are in an interracial relationship at a time when that is socially unacceptable and there are some effective moments between them. Also notable is Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz, a bearded woman with a talent for singing. Settle is good and she often takes the lead in representing the interests of Barnum’s talent pool.

What Doesn’t: Although the music of The Greatest Showman is good, its presentation on screen is often sloppy. The sound of the musical numbers doesn’t always match the visuals and it’s distractingly obvious that the cast have been dubbed over. More troubling is the gulf between how P.T. Barnum is presented in this film and who he was in real life. The purpose of a historical or biographical movie is to create an impression of who this person was or what the events were actually like. Virtually nothing in The Greatest Showman correlates with the truth of Barnum’s life and nearly every major event in the story is fabricated or distorted. Especially egregious is the treatment of opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) who is dishonestly portrayed as a homewrecking diva. The rest of the women of The Greatest Showman are little more than set dressing. Especially wasted is Michelle Williams as Barnam’s spouse in a role that amounts to nothing more than a doting housewife. The Greatest Showman presents P.T. Barnum as a champion of tolerance and diversity who brought people of different shapes and colors together on stage. This is at best a well-intended but clumsily handled message. At worst it’s a cynical grab for contemporary relevance. In life, Barnum is said to have exploited the people he put on stage. The film’s fast and loose approach to history might be excusable if it delivered its message of tolerance well but it doesn’t. The anthems of pride and acceptance are vague and empty; there is no substance to it. None of these people are more than their unusual conditions and they are all left to the background as a chorus of voices whose only purpose is to shore up their employer’s self-esteem when he hits a contrived setback. And that leads to the ultimate problem of The Greatest Showman. It discards the truth to tell a crowd pleasing fiction but it doesn’t even do that well. Barnum is not an interesting character and he achieves fame and fortune with virtually no struggle. For a movie that’s intended to be a rags-to-riches story, the filmmakers demonstrate no understanding of what makes that kind of movie work.

Bottom Line: The Greatest Showman is a dishonest mess that doesn’t succeed as a musical, a biopic, or as an inspirational story. It’s a sloppy movie that’s as clumsy as it is disingenuous.

Episode: #680 (December 31, 2017)