The Greatest Showman
Michael Gracey (2017)
Hugh Jackman has played Marvel’s Wolverine so often that it’s hard to remember he’s at heart a song-and-dance man, but a quick look back at his impressive work in Les Miserables is sufficient to remind us of his significant talent in that area, and so it seems natural for him to be cast as the lead in this Christmas season’s big annual musical, The Greatest Showman. In its attempt to be 2017’s La La Land, this musical pseudo-biography of P.T. Barnum has employed La La’s composers, Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, to whip up some flashy numbers for the show. The fact is, however, that La La Land found innovative and magical new ways to present its musical numbers, while Showman’s numbers are presented in rather hackneyed ways. And while Les Miserables presented a soundtrack already full of favorites made familiar by the world’s most popular musical, Showman’s songs are all pretty forgettable. I couldn’t hum you a single one even though I just saw the movie.
The Greatest Showman is a bit more like a Baz Luhrmann movie, and is more reminiscent of Moulin Rouge than either of those previous Christmas musicals, in its flashy over-the-top glitz and production numbers. The choreography is watchable, and the performers put a lot into those numbers, but in the end, it’s a less interesting movie than Moulin Rouge as well, since it’s less original or ambitious.
This is another case where there is a significant gap on Rotten tomatoes.com between what critics think of the movie and what audiences think. Only about 50% of critics give the film a favorable rating, while 89% of audience members are positive about the film. Of course, one must recall that the audience of a film like this is already self-selected, and have come expecting songs (perhaps have even downloaded some of them) and choreography, or are fans of some of the stars and are unlikely to be critical of them. Apparently with this film they were not expecting historical accuracy, meaningful social commentary, or believable or relatable characters. Which is a good thing, because they didn’t get any of that.
The film tells the story of Barnum beginning with his childhood as the poor son of a tailor, who falls in love with Charity Hallett, the daughter of a rich New York patrician. After growing up during a forgettable song, Jackman as Barnum calls on Charity (Michelle Williams) and takes her off to get married over her father’s objections. Frustrated and poor with two daughters in his growing family, Barnum finds a way to achieve his dreams of monetary success by inventing the circus, building it on money borrowed under false pretenses and by exploiting a group of outsiders he and his society regard as “freaks”: including a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a little person dressed as Napoleon and billed as Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), a black acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), and a host of others. The film also features Zac Ephron as the playwright Phillip Carlyle, Barnum’s completely fictional business partner, who is himself a member of the New York upper crust and incurs his family’s wrath when he appears in public with Wheeler, thus paralleling Barnum’s situation with Charity.
Complications arise in the form of Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the Swedish songbird whom Barnum sponsored on her American tour, and who causes difficulties, both personal and financial, in Barnum’s happy life; and in the form of bigoted New Yorkers who consider Barnum’s freak-show morally offensive—and not because of the way it exploits the “others” in our society, but because they find it offensive even to be reminded that such beings exist.
The incredibly complex moral problem of Barnum’s exploitation of these social outcasts is the most important issue raised in this film, but it’s simply glossed over generically in the one semi-memorable number of the film, “This Is Me,” which says, essentially, in a 21st-century pop-culture manner, that everybody should just be themselves and that’s OK! But that doesn’t deal at all with the position of such people in 19th century America, or the moral ambiguity of Barnum’s exploiting them for monetary gain (a question hinted at when Barnum convinces “Tom Thumb” that if people are going to laugh at him anyway, he might as well get paid for it—but never taken any further). Nor is Carlyle’s relationship with Wheeler given serious consideration, since his parents are shown objecting to his relationship with someone of low class, but the fact that the relationship is in fact interracial is never even mentioned—a treatment that is either anachronistic or simply lazy because it was too much for the script to get into. There was already a class issue in the Barnum-Charity couple, so why not just repeat that here?
Nor does the Jenny Lind story get much development. Aside from a few scenes of her singing some obviously contemporary compositions instead of the kind of 19th-century songs she would have actually sung, her part is so underwritten that her motivations are almost a complete mystery to us. But actually, Barnum’s wife Charity doesn’t get much more development. Nor, for that matter, does Wheeler. The women seem to be here to look good, or in the case of Settle’s bearded lady, to sound good singing about being herself. Whoever that is.
Even Barnum remains something of a mystery in his own quasi bio-pic, He’s essentially a generic rags-to-riches musical comedy protagonist who happens to own a circus, which gives him some interesting venues for songs. His reputation as the great flim-flam man of American capitalism is barely hinted at. Nor is there much else to distinguish him as an individual. Jackman does what he can with what he’s been given, but he just hasn’t been given much. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.
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