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The Greatest Showman

 There's a Musical Born Every Minute 

Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman
20th Century Fox
 105 Minutes
Directed byMichael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams 
The Greatest Showman

P.T. Barnum, a man notorious for making a buck by shamelessly hoodwinking his audience, would have liked The Greatest Showman, a lavish new musical film supposedly about the life of Barnum. Not only is the considerably non-photogenic Barnum portrayed by Aussiewood handsome Hugh Jackman, who boasts considerable singing and dancing talents as well, but the less savory aspects of Barnum’s business practices, including outright fraud and cruel exploitation of the “freaks” who entertained audiences on his behalf, are pretty much ignored. What’s left is what Barnum lovingly referred to as a “humbug,” a lavish but largely or entirely fake spectacle. However, what Barnum realized 150 years ago is still true today—properly presented and packaged, audiences can still enjoy a humbug.


The Greatest Showman is a distinctly old-school musical, with songs written specifically for the movie and delivered by having the actors spontaneously burst into song and dance. Since these various songs comprise about half of the film’s 105 minute running time, and they do relatively little to advance the storyline, the movie’s plot is rather simplistic. Barnum, the son of a tailor, is determined that his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and daughters will live well, so, when his career in the “legitimate” business world ends after he gets laid off, he borrows money with some non-existent collateral and opens his American Museum in New York City.


At first, the various stuffed animals and similar exhibits on display do poorly, but, after he populates the show with “human oddities,” including the diminutive General Tom Thumb, business starts booming. Barnum, however, is still obsessed with gaining acceptance among the upper class, in large part because his wife comes from a well-to-do family. First, he persuades playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join his troupe. That leads to an invitation to tour Europe (and meet Queen Victoria), during which time, he signs the famous opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to an American tour he sponsors.


Lind’s tour is a big success, but Barnum’s attention to Lind leads to friction with both his wife and his other performers, all of whom feel he is ignoring them. When her romantic overtures toward Barnum are rejected, Lind quits the tour, and, owing to the way Barnum financed the tour, he stands to lose a great deal of money. Phillip is also having problems in his personal life, as his romance with aerialist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) is not well received by his parents. Eventually, Charity walks out on Barnum, and Anne rejects Phillip.


Broadway and Hollywood have produced musicals about the lives of famous people from Annie Get Your Gun to Hamilton, and anyone who would take these as largely factual depictions of real events proves Barnum’s supposed axiom about one being born every minute (although Barnum never in fact said that). Suffice it to say that most of the events that provide the drama in The Greatest Showman, including the supposed triangle involving Barnum, Charity, and Lind, along with the entire character of Phillip Carlyle, are completely fictional.


Criticism of The Greatest Showman because of its historical inaccuracy misses the point. What really matters is whether the movie is a convincing drama, and, simply put, it’s too simplistic. Barnum is a Dickensian hero trying to better himself who gets caught up in the trap of fame and pays a price. And, to show that he’s a great guy, he takes a group of unfortunate people whom polite society has rejected and gives them financial success and self-esteem. Of course, the real Barnum wasn’t possessed of anywhere near as altruistic an attitude; he merely recognized that people would pay money to see his oddities, and the odder the better. But the movie’s efforts at promoting a message of tolerance don’t fare much better; they ring as hollow and unconvincing as most of Barnum’s gimmickry.


Perhaps Charles Dickens might have made The Greatest Showman into a quality drama or Douglas Sirk might have made it into an entertaining over-the-top melodrama. Unfortunately, Michael Gracey, who is making his directorial debut in any type of work here, is no Dickens and no Sirk. The bits and snippets of dramatic moments that are shown here are almost afterthoughts, designed to facilitate the next musical number. The movie’s short running time doesn’t help either. The film is devoid of nearly all establishing scenes or scenes that help bolster understanding of any of the characters. Virtually every scene exists for the sole purpose of moving the plot along as quickly as possible.


As a drama, The Greatest Showman wouldn’t pass muster as a Hallmark Channel special. But as a musical, it often soars as high as Anne Wheeler’s aerial acts. The tunes written by Benj Passek and Justin Paul, who also wrote the songs in last year’s La La Land, are infectious (as the clip below demonstrates), perfect for large scale ensemble numbers. The detailed choreography is also remarkable and, unlike many recent musicals, director Gracey doesn’t have to resort to camera trickery to disguise the shortcomings of some of his performers.


Of course, Gracey is helped enormously by a talented, and perfectly cast, ensemble. Hugh Jackman is an acclaimed Broadway musical talent, and one can easily see him assuming the lead should an adaptation of The Greatest Showman make its way to Broadway. And, while audiences might have forgotten about Zac Efron’s background after watching him in a series of idiotic chest baring comedies, he also got his start in High School Musical. The real find, however, is Keala Settle as Lettie, the bearded lady. She has an amazing singing voice and becomes the de facto voice of Barnum’s carnival troupe, performing perhaps the single best number in the movie, “This Is Me.”


If you could eliminate all the non-musical moments in The Greatest Showman, the result might actually be one of the best movies of the year. As it is, however, they serve as continuing distractions and fail to register as drama on all but the most basic and simplistic level. Unfortunately, like Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins in Barnum’s act (who also appear briefly in the movie), The Greatest Showman is an indivisible work. Those musical numbers and the associated performances and production values make the movie worth watching, but it’s still got too much humbug to be a great holiday film. 

In this scene, Hugh Jackman and the cast perform one of the movie's musical numbers, Come Alive.

Read other reviews of The Greatest Showman: 

The Greatest Showman (2017) on IMDb