The Greatest Showman: Film Review
The sixteen-year-old version of myself probably would have loved the film The Greatest Showman. It’s a movie musical that paints with broad strokes of emotion, sings with melodies of gloriously exhilarating repetition, and it celebrates the misfits of the world, making the idealistic assumption that if we just believe hard enough, the world will embrace us. On one level, it is a musical fantasy and should be enjoyed by anyone who can subscribe to such misguided optimism. On another level, the adult version of myself wants to slap the sixteen-year-old in me for being so naïve, so eager to embrace such folderal and humbug. But then, The Greatest Showman is based on the life of flim-flam man Phineas Taylor Barnum, the man who supposedly said, “There’s a sucker born every minute” (There is no evidence that he actually did), so buying into folderal is exactly what this tale is about. To a degree, I must admit that I bought into this film. Even if it isn’t perfect, its colorful world of humbug makes you feel good. It’s illusion instead of substance, but that can transport just as easily.
If you are looking for a film of historical accuracy, please look elsewhere. Apparently, the fascinating life of one of our country’s most enterprising impresarios of entertainment wasn’t interesting enough to command a truthful depiction. Instead, the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon peppers some truth into a mostly fabricated story of rearranged events and totally manufactured ones. It is generally accepted that film biographies take such liberties in order to tell these “true” stories with more compelling dramatic structures, so we understand a willing suspension of disbelief must be part of the elasticity with which we process these films. At heart, the nature of P.T. Barnum is captured in this film by a game Hugh Jackman, singing and dancing his heart out, but given mostly a cardboard cutout character that requires every trick in his theatrical arsenal to keep us engaged. The film is fortunate that Jackman knows how to employ such gifts, as The Greatest Showman rests squarely on his shoulders.
The Greatest Showman is a musical, and since it is one, the score is as-important at driving a story as the screenplay. Fortunately, the music and lyrics are in the hands of the Tony/Oscar-winning composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, A Christmas Story: The Musical, La La Land), a duo with the unlimited talent and an ability to capture different time periods and astute character development through music. Unfortunately (in this writer’s opinion), their score for The Greatest Showman opts for a pop music feel that is at odds with the piece and the lyrics do very little to flesh out any character in this story past the broadest caricature. The music is often infectious, aided by the repetitive use of the melodies, but only one song really sparkles: “A Million Dreams” sung by an adolescent Barnum and his wife-to-be Charity. This is the one time that the film elevates itself to pure magic. This is the one instance that the score really embraces the musical theatre convention of a character song and the idea of the “I want” song.
The cast does the best it can with what it has to work with. Zac Efron plays an apprentice to P.T. Barnum, looks great in all the period costumes, and offers the eye-candy and charm he has been flashing since the High School Musical franchise. Michelle Williams (looking like a young Marin Mazzie), plays Charity Barnum, the warm and understanding wife of Barnum, yet we know very little about her character in the end other than she is warm and understanding. The “freaks” of the story, instead of being humanized individuals, move as a collective and are given zero identity beyond the curiosities that make them special. The only one that emerges from the pack is Keala Settle, portraying Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Lady. Settle infuses every moment on screen with charged emotion and an interpretation that breaks the walls of the screenplay’s limitations. Most of us already knew of her talents, having witnessed her capabilities in Broadway musicals such as Waitress, Les Misérables, and Hands on a Hardbody. What a shame that such a talented lady is reduced to nothing more than a third-female-banana in a film that predominantly concentrates on the story of men.
One place where the film does succeed is in its visual storytelling. Every moment is a conscious effort by director Michael Gracey to say as much as possible with pictures. The Greatest Showman is a kinetic visual feast of color and motion, part of that illusion I mentioned earlier, convincing us we’ve seen more than we actually-have. It’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. The film is entertaining. It does put a smile on your face, and there is something to that even if the components don’t add up to a storytelling, cinematic, or musical masterpiece. The film concludes with the following P.T. Barnum quote flashing across the screen: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” That nobility may or may not be true, but happy is a good thing and I suspect, despite its faults, this film will make many people smile.