I’m not going to lie, The Greatest Showman, is not a good movie. I would even venture to say it’s a terrible movie. Doesn’t change the fact that by the end I was, as my wife describes it, doing my ‘happy seal clap.’
Yes, The Greatest Showman glosses over the life and times of Phineas T. Barnum and instead holds him up as a saint to the unloved and societal outcasts. It smooths out the rough edges and erases the charges of the exploitative nature of his museums and circuses. But honestly what are you expecting walking into a musical starring Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron?
Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is so outrageously false it could almost be a concocted by Barnum himself. It’s a musical and not a particularly imaginative or deft one at that. Still, the the boring parts are never too long, and while it’s not all that good, The Greatest Showman sincerely wants to entertain you. In many ways it’s pure desire to do nothing but make us smile eventually has us smiling.
Michael Gracey’s direction and visual style is hard to describe. It’s somewhere between a child’s idea of what reality is and what are the limits of a computer programmer. There is a head scratching amount of computer generated special effects used in The Greatest Showman. It only becomes more befuddling when we realize the ‘Irish Giant’ is in fact on stilts and that Ying and Yang, the Siamese twins, are two men who are clearly just holding each other’s waist under a coat. Somehow though, I get the feeling it’s the type of thing Barnum would delight in.
There’s a sort of halfhearted chicanery to the entire production of The Greatest Showman. The way it promises to be more about something deeper but always just moves on to something else. Those looking for something deep and meaningful should be directed to the Egress. Gracey is content to wallow in the feel good fable about a group of outsiders who come together under a man who loses himself along the way only to find himself among the rubble. Oh, and there’s a lot of pop ballads. Like a lot, a lot.
If a lesser talent than Hugh Jackman was at the center of all this stunningly half baked malarkey it would quite simply collapse. Nevertheless, Jackman marches on through The Greatest Showman treating every moment like it’s a scene from The Music Man. I’m not saying The Greatest Showman is anywhere as great; I’m saying you’d never know it from Jackman’s performance.
Luckily for Jackman, and us, he’s not alone. Michelle Williams plays his wife Charity with such a guileless charm we forget she has a reputation for morose emotionally damaged characters. Of all the sights The Greatest Showman boasts, the image of a spinning, smiling, singing, and dancing Michelle Williams is hands down the most endearing.
If The Greatest Showman had spent even a little more time exploring Charity and Phineas’s relationship the movie would have possibly have been better. What precious little we do see hints at a wonderfully ripe and healthy relationship filled with love and trust. When Phineas and Charity argue about whether or not their daughter should continue ballet he erupts with “This isn’t about me!” Charity laughs and smiles as she asks, “So this isn’t like every other conversation we’ve ever had.”
For a movie that has almost nothing going on, The Greatest Showman tries it’s hardest to convince you otherwise. Barnum, desperate for respectability, cajoles the help of budding playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) into being his business partner. Reluctantly, Carlyle agrees and soon finds himself falling for the trapeze artist’s sister Ann Wheeler (Zendaya). Their ‘romance’ is done with coquettish smiles, coveted glances, and clandestine brushes. They fall for each other because Gracey and his scriptwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon demand it. It’s less a love for the ages and more an arbitrary sub plot to fill up time. This is not to say Efron and Zendaya don’t do their all to sell it. The two exchange smoldering looks convincingly enough. It’s when they have to talk to each other that the story and movie begin to drag.
Much better they sing their desires to each other. Gracey seems confused as what he’s supposed to do with his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. But every once and awhile he gets a notion or two and The Greatest Showman soars. Zendaya and Efron’s duet “Rewrite the Stars” is one of theses moments. McGarvey utilizes the dark space inside Barnum’s museum and Zendaya’s place on the trapeze perfectly. The duo magically somehow pour everything they’ve been denied the chance to express throughout the movie into one perfect, glorious song.
Aside from some early dance numbers between Jackman and Williams on the rooftops of some tenements buildings for “A Million Dreams,” Gracey seems lost visually. The dance choreography, while good, hardly seems fitting for cinematic widescreen. Although the scene where Carlyle and Barnum argue in a bar is pretty clever as the barman is forced to switch between businessman and an ally for Barnum.
The Greatest Showman bumbles along harmlessly until the last act in which it turns into a musical Book of Job. We never once ever doubt the notion that Barnum will, of course, turn all his misfortunes around. This is a feel good musical about how people who feel unloved find love. So yes, Barnum overcomes obstacles to succeed in the end. Of course he does. We never doubted it for a second.
Gracey is honest from the beginning about what he wants to do. He wants to entertain and make people feel good in a world that often makes us feel bad. In an era that thrives on irony, so much sincerity should be swaddled and protected. As it is, I enjoyed the hell out of The Greatest Showman in spite of its flaws.