20th Century Fox
It’s been a big year for Hugh Jackman’s passion projects. Determined to walk away on a high note, he helped push a difficult, different vision for the X-Men universe through the studio system, and the result was Logan, a film that packed one of the biggest emotional punches of the year.
And then there’s The Greatest Showman.
I’ll be honest. There’s a part of me that is baffled by the idea of making a movie that canonizes PT Barnum in any way. I find the circus detestable, and my entire life, I’ve found them cruel and upsetting. I keep thinking of the scene at the start of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters where the tour guide played by Zach Woods points out a room in the mansion by saying, “It was in this very room that PT Barnum first had the idea to torture elephants.” Well, now there’s an entire musical about that decision, and it is perhaps the strangest studio film of the year.
Hugh Jackman’s movie stardom has been fascinating so far. Largely based on one role, the ways he has pushed at the confines of being best known for snikting his way through 364 different X-Men movies over the last 17 years has been illuminating. The Boy From Oz, a musical about Peter Allen, seemed to bring him more visible pleasure as a performer than anything he ever did on film, perhaps until he made Les Miserables. He is a song-and-dance man at heart, and I wish he’d been around for an earlier Hollywood age. He would have been terrific as part of the MGM musical machine, and his charisma when he’s able to cut loose and perform like that is off-the-charts ridiculous. That’s what makes a great song-and-dance man so much fun to watch. You can tell that they’re having the best time in the world, and it’s infectious.
Whenever the world of The Greatest Showman erupts into song, Jackman looks like he is in his element, happy and alive and practically spilling over with joy at the prospect of all of the singing and dancing he gets to do. The supporting cast also throws everything they have into it, and as a Michelle Williams fan, I was delighted to see her singing and dancing as well. But there is a madness to the entire enterprise, and I can’t think of the last sanitization of a famous person that went quite this far to avoid anything like the ugly reality. Even worse, the film makes the case that the “performers” who were exploited by Barnum were his creative partners, ennobled and uplifted by their time in the spotlight. It positions him as a progressive, pulling together the people on the margins and turning the things that keep them separate into the things that make them wonderful. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that message in an honest setting, but as the foundation for a film about PT Barnum? It’s almost monstrously wrong.
The film starts with a young Phineas Barnum (Jackman) watching as his father, a tailor, is mistreated by his wealthy customers, made keenly aware of his place in the world and his lack of status. He falls in love with Charity Hallett (Williams) when they are very young, promising that he will make himself into a man worth marrying her. He eventually makes good on the marrying part, but they struggle for many years before Barnum finally has his moment of inspiration and decides to start a museum. He peoples it with the unusual, including Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and the original “Siamese” twins, Chang (Yusaku Komori) and Eng (Danial Son). As his reputation grows, so does his ambition, and he books an American tour for Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a European sensation known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” Eventually, he is knocked down for his hubris so he can learn the important lesson of not ignoring his friends.
Really? That is so far from the actual life story of PT Barnum that you have to treat The Greatest Showman as fiction, start to finish, and even on those terms, it is surface-level, facile, and full of the kind of treacly “Everyone’s a star!” and “We’re all amazing!” fist-pumping, feel-good junk that keeps tween stars employed by the Disney Channel.
20th Century Fox
Speaking of which, there is one legitimately great number in the film in terms of staging and performance, and sadly, it’s got nothing to do with Jackman. There’s a subplot about how Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) leaves his career as a playwright and risks his standing in New York society by going to work with Barnum, and he ends up falling in love with acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) despite the color of her skin being an obvious societal issue at the time. They have their big moment play out as a dance that takes place on the floor and in the air, with Anne literally pulling Carlyle into her world. It’s easy to forget that our introduction to Efron was in musicals, but he’s really good here, and Zendaya makes her insane choreography look simple. It’s ironic that two actual Disney Channel stars provide the one moment that transcends the sort of shiny, made-for-TV quality that suffuses the rest of the film.
There’s another subplot about James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) that infuriates me. Bennett was a real-life newspaperman who rightly attacked Barnum in his early career. Barnum’s first real exhibit was of an elderly black woman who he purchased, something that Bennett found detestable. Imagine that. The film not only removes the very real and righteous complaints that Bennett had, it actually has the nerve to paint him, by the end, as a guy who approves of Barnum, even coming to see him as sort of heroic. No. No. No. That is not correct, and it’s a complete inversion of what a real person believed. That’s not fair.
Michael Gracey cut his teeth as a director on commercials and working in visual effects, and I wish I could report he is a discovery and a natural, but directing a musical is a very specific technical challenge and he does not seem to be the man for the job. I don’t get the feeling he has any specific love of dance or love of choreography, and one of the first things you have to get right in a film like this is just showing me the insane work that everyone’s doing. There are great dancers all over the film, but everything’s so relentlessly overshot and insistent on trying to sell a sense of spectacle (something the very stage-bound production never even remotely gets right) that it loses the human beings and the basics. I feel like the music was produced the same way. Even though the singers are all just fine, everything feels like it’s being yelled at me, like all of the lyrics end in exclamation points. “Come alive! Come alive! Go and ride your light! Let it burn so bright! Reaching up to the sky and it’s open wide! You’re electrified!” Okay, Hugh! If you say so! Just stop screaming! Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s lyrics run the gamut from clever and emotional to non-sensical, feel-good goop, and it’s a testament to just how hard it is to get an original musical right. The best intentions in the world don’t matter if you can’t land the songs themselves, and if you can’t find a frame they fit in.
Actually, can we take a moment to stop selling the “first original musical in forever” nonsense. I get that it was hard for Hugh Jackman to get this made. I do. But whether you like them or not, the Disney musicals are originals. There was no Frozen or Moana before they made those films, and no one knew a note of that music before they sat down in the theater. Just because they’re animated doesn’t make it any less of a magic trick to get an entire musical score to work, and both of those films were loaded with moments where the songs come alive and transport the audience while also serving both character and theme. I know when I was at the press screening for Frozen, for example, it was immediately apparent as “Let It Go” played that we were hearing an all-timer. The first time Elsa tossed off her bratty “The cold never bothered me anyway,” the entire El Capitan erupted in response, applauding in the middle of the song. That’s because people were fully invested, and the song just put the icing on the cake. That’s what musicals do at their best. The songs give voice to the things that are almost impossible for us to simply say.
Moment to moment, scene to scene, The Greatest Showman has an energy that carries it along, and there is entertainment to be had here. But if you look to this film for either honest biography of a complex figure, or even pop digestion of the ideas his legacy raises, you are going to be bitterly disappointed. I’m glad Hugh Jackman finally got this particular dream out of his system; I just wish he’d dreamed something better.
Running time: 105 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic