Greatest Showman, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/28/17 19:18:05

"Nowhere near the greatest show."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

I feel for Hugh Jackman and everyone else who can both act and sing - there was something magical about the classic movie musicals of decades past, and every once in a while you see one that does something great with the form. But too often, their desire to do a musical leads them to sign on to things like "The Greatest Showman", where they idea seems much more exciting than anything that could come of it. There may be a fine moment or two in the final film, but it spends most of its time somewhere between bad and unwatchable.

Initially, it just seem thin, which isn't necessarily a problem. Indeed, more films could do with sprinting through the foundational stuff the way this one does, having young tailor's son Phineas Barnum (Ellis Rubin) meet and fall for Charity Hallett (Skylar Dunn) with little more than a sight gag and a montage before they're grown, played by Jackman and Michelle Williams, and raising two adorable moppets (Austyn Johnson & Cameron Seely) of their own. It plants enough of a seed of an inferiority complex to be referenced later without giving the whole opening act over to a different cast or investing too much in any one specific symbol, and if it drags, it's still a good job of seemingly delivering all the depth certain elements appear to need.

Still, that efficiency can easily turn into just not doing necessary work. The film gets to a moment when Barnum and the audience are looking out the window of his soul-crushing office job and sees a landscape divided between another building filed with sad drones and a cemetery, and while the filmmakers obvious are still trying to get to the good stuff, it hasn't earned that shot yet. Admittedly, I hate that image more than most - it tends to smack of condescension when not used with care, like the artist can't bear imagine punching the clock the way his or her audience does, and this film has spent roughly twelve seconds on trying to show that Barnum is not suited for that sort of life. It's one of the first of many times that director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon rely on familiar patterns rather than specific actions to build the story, but one that feels particularly weightless: It's where they could have shown sort of spark within Barnum, but instead just serves as the set-up for a little off-screen opportunism on Barnum's part.

That the filmmakers choose to have Barnum borrow the capital for his first museum based upon the stolen deed for a sunken ship off-screen highlights what a relatively sanitized version of his story is being sold here: At no point between him being sad in and office and a scene near the end where his harshest critic (Paul Sparks) tells him that he's done a good thing does it actually show Barnum as a particular genius, or creative. No, he's just a well-meaning guy with whose ideas come from nowhere and are executed between cuts, and whose exploitation of other people is only seldom obviously cruel or mean-sprouted. He may not exactly be heroic, but he's also never the sort of person that "there's a sucker born every minute" can even mistakenly be attributed to. Jackman seems to come more to life the more flawed that Barnum is allowed to be, even as he's genuinely warm in the scenes with his character's family, but for the star of a movie calling itself "The Greatest Showman", but he's not given a lot of chances to get into how Barnum could hustle or make the circus come more alive, and he's passable rather than charismatic as a result. The important moments either happen off-screen or as part of a musical number, and while those are entertaining, they amplify everyone, not just Barnum.

(They are decent performances taken in isolation - the contemporary-style songs by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul may not be the most memorable after one viewing, or really designed to move the story forward rather than stop it, but they're enjoyable as the audience hears them, and nobody charged with singing and dancing stumbles. Gracey and a team of six editors chop things up a bit more than is ideal for those in the Danny Kaye school of "show every step" would approve of, but these numbers are always visually striking.)

Despite looking good, the movie is rather bland, like the filmmakers have chosen the basic shape of a story but not filled it out. Barnum feuds with a snobbish critic, chases respectability, neglects his family; the younger partner he brings in (Zac Efron) falls for a black trapeze artist (Zendaya), which would scandalize his respectable white family. Every once in a while, they stop for a song that explains things, but they never do anything but go through the morons aside from singing. A great musical has songs that feel like the characters' passion is exploding into verse and fantasy; this one has performances that have been fired into a disappointing, needlessly generic framework.

I totally get why Jackman, Efron, Zendaya, et al would want to do something like this, and chances to make a musical don't come around nearly as often as they did the middle of the twentieth century. That's just an explanation for making this movie, though, not an excuse for taking something that should be larger than life and making it boring.

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