Published on December 20th, 2017 | by Ian M. Woodington0
The Greatest Showman
I can’t claim to know much about musicals. I don’t actively avoid them, but I don’t go out of my way to see them either. The few that I have seen and liked don’t seem to sit well with the musical theater crowd either. For instance, recently in conversation my defense of Russell Crowe as Javert in the latest adaptation of Les Misérables was shot down in a matter of seconds. My wife, with some frequency, reminds me that my (until now) secret admiration of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd is something that should never be declared in a public forum. For me, one of the best achievements in musical film will always be South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut; and though there is a general positivity about it, I’ve never seen it taken all that seriously as a contemporary musical (it was certainly a hell of a lot more memorable than 2003’s Best Picture winner, Chicago). So, if you haven’t already decided my opinion will be moot and stopped reading, I will, with the limited appreciation I have for this genre, give The Greatest Showman the fairest shake I can.
At a surprisingly short hour and forty-five minutes, this high-concept imagining of the meteoric rise of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), from the impoverished son of a tailor to one of the biggest names in the history of entertainment, should absolutely fly by. Tragically, it doesn’t. Beginning with an irresponsibly rushed first act that condenses decades of backstory into a few minutes, it dramatically stops dead between its second and third acts as we’re subjected to three songs in a row that not all that subtly beat us over the head with the inevitably that our leads are going to have to face some predictable, life-changing conflict before the big finale. Showman also suffers from the delusion that period pieces will be more engaging and relatable with a modern-inspired soundtrack, à la Baz Luhrmann’s misguided attempt at The Great Gatsby. The idea being that the music of the time, though antiquated to us now, would have sounded modern to people then, so why not put modern music, whether original or sourced, over period images in an attempt to bridge the gap between their world and ours? It’s a concept that might sound great on paper, but as Luhrmann already proved, the final results don’t so much complement each other as they expose each other’s weaknesses.
Its major flaw though, and why The Greatest Showman fails to be a great anything, is the insistence on force-feeding moments of attempted catharsis every 15-20 minutes, having earned almost none of them. A great many of the numbers are presented as such grand, climactic set pieces that they don’t feel as though they are working to serve a cohesive, larger whole. We are inundated with a blur of crescendo after crescendo and left little time to reflect on what we have just seen and heard before the film clumsily bounds off to the next song-and-dance laden plot point; and if you asked me to name any of the individual tunes now three days later, I’d be hard-pressed to do so. It’s an odd juxtaposition, and one I’ve very rarely experienced, wanting so badly for a film to end and at the same time wishing it had been given more time to fully realize its scope. Keep your ears open as well for an ill-advised line in which Barnum proudly compares himself to Napoleon. Isn’t Barnum supposed to be the “hero” of this piece, someone we are supposed to identify with and for whom we want to find success? Somebody please provide Showman’s writers a history lesson that didn’t just come off a Wikipedia page (for Barnum and Napoleon’s sakes).
With any negative criticism, I do like to try and go out on something positive, and if I have to concede anything to this movie, it’s that it finds its footing, albeit temporarily, while addressing issues of equality. Showman shines in the few moments where the supporting players portraying Barnum’s “oddities”, Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz in particular, are given the opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with the leads and, in many of these scenes, they rise above even the likes of Hugh Jackman. Another member of the cast who merits a little bit of praise (and I reserve the right to retract this at any time of my choosing, more than likely with whatever juvenile comedy he’ll be seen in next) is Zac Efron. Exposure to the likes of Nicole Kidman and John Cusack in 2012’s sadly overlooked The Paperboy, may finally be yielding results as he is the only lead who leaves an impression. Though his journey as a high society playwright begrudgingly brought into Barnum’s world definitely leans heavily on the saccharine side, it does provide a break of plausibility in amongst the unbridled chaos of the rest of the picture. I wouldn’t doubt that there is a much better movie that could have been made from expanding into its own feature the subplot of his character bucking the expectations of his status to fall in love with a circus performer.
1 and ½ out of 5
Second Review by Jennifer Fuduccia
20th Century Fox’s new film The Greatest Showman stars Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum, Zac Efron as Phillip Carlyle, Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum, Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind, and Zendaya as Anne Wheeler.
The initial previews did nothing to prepare me for this film, other than to mildly pique my interest. I had NO idea that it was a musical, from the previews!
The movie opens to two young children, the young PT Barnum and young Charity and follows them through their relationship over their childhood, teens and finally to their married life. This happened within the first 20 minutes of the film.
From the beginning, the music had me smiling. I am not sure I stopped smiling for the entire show, except when I has a few tears.
From what I can tell, the story isn’t particularly historically accurate, but I was drawn in and captured by it none-the-less.
For me, the movie tells a good tale, and despite having essentially two sets of main characters with both separate and entwined story lines, it moves along well, and there are not places that it “gets stuck”. I found myself engaged, and pulling for the characters, and invested in what would become of them all.
PT Barnum grew up as the son of a servant, who falls in love at a young age with Charity, his fathers’ employers’ young daughter. She falls for him as well, and despite her fathers’ disapproval, after she is done with finishing school, Barnum comes to collect her and to ask for her hand in marriage. She accepts and they run off to the city to start their new life together.
Barnum takes a job punching numbers in an office, but gets laid off when the shipping companies ships sink in a storm. With two young children at home and his wife to take care of, he is desperate to be able to provide for his family.
By a fluke he comes across a bearded woman singing in a laundry service shop, and then gathers other people with odd talents and unique features to display in his museum that he gets a loan to buy by tricking the bank.
The story follows his rough start, then his success, and then his travels in his attempt to gather the “highbrow crowd” to his show. He brings the Opera singer Jenny Lind back to the USA and sets up shows travelling with her across the country while his friend (but not yet partner) Phillip Carlyle runs the Circus at home.
Things take a wrong turn with Jenny Lind, and Barnum rushes home to his wife. At the same moment, tragedy strikes the circus and all that Barnum has built is destroyed, both in his personal and his professional life.
I’ll leave you to see the movie for yourself to find out the outcome!
I really loved this film. It might even be my favorite, and if not, certainly in my top 2. My husband really enjoyed the film as well, and can’t say anything that he didn’t like about it.
The only thing that we both commented on that was a bit odd was that the lighting of the scenes themselves were kind of dark. It was not “bright” despite the colors in the scenes for the circus acts.
I would give this film 5 out of 5 stars.