A farce that masquerades the exploitation of the “othered” as the championing of inclusivity might make The Greatest Showman, in a late-play for the crown, the timeliest movie of 2017.
In the 19th century, P.T. Barnum made his name as a freak show peddler; a simple Google search will surface the reports of the abuse and the fetishizing of minorities, the disabled, and the ostracized, all in the name of impressing looky-loos with “oddities.” In the grand, uplifting musical extravaganza The Greatest Showman, Barnum is these outsiders’ song-and-dance savior, with Hugh Jackman starring as a gumptious street urchin who becomes three-ring Jesus.
The film is jam-packed with a rousing score penned by Tony- and Oscar-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen). If show tunes and praise music had a baby, and that baby was paraded underneath a circus tent for maximum profit, you’d have the soundtrack for The Greatest Showman. The choreography, too, is thrilling, running the gamut from foot-stomping bass accompaniment for Jackman’s rapping (a thing that happens!) to aerial routines finding Zac Efron and Zendaya dangling from the sky.
It’s rated PG family-friendly spectacle at its schlockiest. Cue the applause!
From what we recall from the last time we were at the circus, a putrid stench sort of suffocated a cold, damp arena while downtrodden entertainers, of both the animal and human variety, laboriously attempted tricks that were built up as dazzling but, in the end, were mostly… fine. The crowd went wild anyway, the reaction only mildly sheepish. We expect the same from The Greatest Showman, a film so big and loud and critic proof that the dismissal of ho-hum naysayers is actually written into the plot.
The truth is that it’s too fun and too lazy to write a takedown of The Greatest Showman. (And it would be easy: This is a freaking circus musical starring Hugh Jackman.) We expect reviews will be more vicious than first-time director Michael Gracey’s film might deserve, though the parade of clichés and airbrushing of Barnum’s perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes deserve the scrutiny.
And groan as loud as we did when Barnum asks a critic who scoffs at his fledgling circus show, “Do these smiles seem fake?”—thus absolving the film then and there of its creative sins because at least the masses are entertained. But, dammit, there really is something magical about the musical numbers here. It’s bad, but there will be smiles, and those smiles will be real.
Sure, we’d sooner walk the tightrope with no safety net than sit through the dialogue of this film again. But we will watch the musical numbers, should they ever be posted on YouTube, over and over again on loop until our boyfriend sends the streaming service his own cease and desist on behalf of his sanity. They’re that good!
We meet young P.T. Barnum when he is an impoverished rascal falling in love with the daughter of a wealthy man. Eventually that young boy grows up to be Hugh Jackman and she grows up to be Michelle Williams. They dance on a roof, she swoons, and he whisks her away from a life of privilege to one all the richer because it’s filled with love.
When Barnum loses his job, she’s sticks by him as he leverages their entire net worth for an unqualified pipe dream. It’s then that our lord, savior, and erstwhile ringmaster receives the divine call: He will create a museum of oddities. Soon, he’s recruiting his apostles, including trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), singing bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and the diminutive Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). When Tom expresses reluctance to draw attention to the part of his identity that has caused him a lifetime of pain, Barnum replies, “Might as well get paid.”
Soon their show is a hit, even if critics are poo-pooing it. (Art predicting life?) How long did it take for this to happen? Time is a construct in this film. Did The Greatest Showman take place in the span of a week? A decade? Is it still happening? The kids don’t age a day, and it seems that Barnum is inspired to create his show of oddities, recruits his acts, and turns it all into enough of a success for him to afford a mansion over the course of about an hour.
Character development is similarly for fuddy-duddies. For all of the posturing of Barnum as this circus version of the Glee choir instructor, the film doesn’t bother to tell you much of anything about a single one of his charges. It makes it all the more confusing, and even antithetical to all this cheerleading of inclusivity, when you’re asked to invest in the apparently dramatic stakes facing these people, people you were never introduced to beyond whatever quirk it is that makes them a so-called freak.
But with true showmanship flair, the movie diverts your attention from those flaws to the main show. In this case, it’s all that music. Really, truly great music!
On average, the songs in The Greatest Showman are objectively better than the songs in La La Land. That is an opinion we will defend to the grave. That the singing and dancing is also superior should go without saying. It’s just a shame no one thought to flip on the light switch on set so that we could see anything. (Woof, this lighting design.)
“Come Alive,” Barnum’s gathering of the troops in which he assembles his circus acts, is the kind of sunny, bopping musical Zoloft pill that is tailor-made for a group number in an episode of American Idol, or your niece’s middle school chorus concert. Which is our snarky way of saying, the catchy earworm tune will never leave your head, not once. You’ll be “dreaming with your eyes wide open” for the rest of time.
“This Is Me,” the self-empowerment anthem belted by Settle’s Bearded Lady that you’re probably already familiar with from the film’s trailers, is vying for the Best Original Song Oscar, and very well could win. It’s the kind of brassy, cheesy crescendo of key-change bliss that should inspire all musical theater fans to wield their high belt as Teflon against the haters. It had us in tears.
There is some excellent So You Think You Can Dance partner work on a romantic rooftop by Jackman and Williams, or at least by their dance doubles, that is spritely and romantic and the closest the film comes to the razzle-dazzle explosion of heart-bursting schmaltz of Moulin Rouge! (In fact, the general aesthetic of the film seems to be, “Wouldn’t you rather this was directed by Baz Luhrmann?”)
Zendaya and Zac Efron watched the hell out of Pink’s award shows performances for an aerial routine that, again, is set to a very lovely song, “Rewrite the Stars”—definitely in the Top 5 of Paul & Pasek songs that use stars for metaphors.
“Never Enough,” too, is a moving number, though presented in the most absurd of circumstances. It is performed by a character named Jenny Lind, who is breathlessly touted as an opera singer. When she sings “Never Enough,” it is unmistakably not opera, but a pop ballad, so much so that actress Rebecca Ferguson’s vocals as Lind were actually dubbed by a former contestant on The Voice.
Such flaws in logic—an opera singer who doesn’t sing opera—are rarely addressed in The Greatest Showman. In fact, the uneven script and stilted dialogue is in such contrast to the stampede of earnestly rousing musical numbers that we wonder if the project would have fared better on the stage, where a weak book linking together standout music is—forgive me, theater nerds—arguably more forgivable.
All this, and we still haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room. Actually, it’s an elephant on the New York City street, and Hugh Jackman is inexplicably riding on top of it like it’s a taxi cab. But metaphorically, that pachyderm is the inevitable comparison between P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump.
Even as saintly as he’s presented in The Greatest Showman, it’s hard not to read Barnum as megalomaniac on a crusade for approval, especially from the harshest critic whose barbs have bruised him the most. On the way, he casts aside those most loyal to him, betrays the principles he sold the public on, and uses the disenfranchised only as much as they can serve him as political capital. In other words, he’s an insecure blowhard peddling falsities and trading in spectacle.
It’s hard to be excited for that new circus to come to town—or, in this case, theaters—when you’re desperate for the other one to leave.