Like a zombie in a maze: The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman (2017)

Glossing over all the controversies surrounding the real P.T. Barnum, this is an overly sanitized musical with no ambition and made for easy consumption

The Greatest Showman


Di­rect­ed by Michael Gracey. Writ­ten by Jen­ny Bicks and Bill Con­don. Star­ring Hugh Jack­man, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Re­bec­ca Fer­gu­son, Zen­daya, Keala Set­tle, Sam Humphrey and Paul Sparks.

The Great­est Show­man is a mu­si­cal full of at­ti­tude but no soul. The at­ti­tude can be seen right at the be­gin­ning of the film when a vin­tage 20th Cen­tu­ry Fox logo is quick­ly re­placed by a mod­ern one in black and white (go fig­ure) to the sound of an also mod­ern pop beat that seems to ex­claim “whoa, scratch that, this is no La La Land; what you’re about to see here is mod­ern stuff.” Then the movie cuts straight to the singing with a glossy over­ture that fol­lows the Baz Luhrmann guide­book of “how to turn Cin­e­ma into a grandiose spec­ta­cle” – or at least tries to, since the re­sult is every­thing but glossy, or classy or styl­ish.

What we have here is in fact pret­ty opaque, as if seen through a dirty piece of glass. Of course, there’s noth­ing wrong with some cocky pop anachro­nism – Luhrmann’s daz­zling and ad­dic­tive Moulin Rouge! (2001) is there to prove it – but when you are un­able to gen­er­ate the “wow” fac­tor that a sto­ry about en­ter­tain­ment needs, your film doesn’t work, pure and sim­ple. And giv­en how much could have been done about P. T. Bar­num and the pop­u­lar­iza­tion of “freak shows” in 19th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, it is ridicu­lous that all this looks as un­ap­peal­ing as High School Mu­si­cal or a lame TV movie, with a taste­less cin­e­matog­ra­phy that doesn’t know how to ex­plore the col­ors, shapes or the cheap art di­rec­tion that re­lies heav­i­ly on CGI.

Even worse is how The Great­est Show­man is de­ter­mined to por­tray Bar­num as a good man who only want­ed to “make peo­ple laugh,” leav­ing com­plete­ly aside the fact that he mis­led peo­ple (like with one of his most fa­mous hum­bugs, the Fiji Mer­maid, for ex­am­ple) or even ex­ploit­ed an el­der­ly en­slaved African-Amer­i­can woman for ex­hi­bi­tion. What the movie shows is a poor boy that grows to be­come a mil­lion­aire man with the dream of bring­ing hap­pi­ness to his fam­i­ly and every­one else. San­i­tized to the point of my­opia, this is ba­si­cal­ly canned Hol­ly­wood crap for easy con­sump­tion, made by un­am­bi­tious writ­ers who couldn’t think of any­thing more com­plex than corny lines about dreams and “rewrit­ing the stars.”

The plot fol­lows a clas­sic as­cen­sion-and-fall arc and couldn’t be lazier. No one cares to ex­plain how Bar­num (Hugh Jack­man) be­comes so rich from one scene to the next. If at first every­one hates him, all it takes, of course, is a song to win their hearts. And the clos­est thing to char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment the movie can think of is Bar­num ex­clud­ing his friends out of prej­u­dice so that we can have an in­spi­ra­tional song nom­i­nat­ed for an Os­car. The hypocrisy is out­ra­geous when you see how it tries to “say some­thing im­por­tant” even though the way that Bar­num makes a huge prof­it out of peo­ple with phys­i­cal ab­nor­mal­i­ties is only called into ques­tion be­cause of the shock caused on “nor­mal” peo­ple in­stead of their ex­ploita­tion.

But still the biggest crime that The Great­est Show­man com­mits is with its fe­male char­ac­ters. Swedish opera singer Jen­ny Lind (Re­bec­ca Fer­gu­son) – who by the way was a so­pra­no, not a Christi­na-Aguil­era-like pop singer – is re­duced to be­ing a venge­ful home­wreck­er who in­sane­ly ac­cus­es Bar­num of us­ing her and con­stant­ly whines about what­ev­er. Michelle Williams is also giv­en an un­grate­ful role, play­ing the ac­cept­ing wife who has no per­son­al­i­ty and only sings about how de­vot­ed to her hus­band she is. Char­i­ty Bar­num is a muse and noth­ing else. It is pa­thet­ic that a film that wants to of­fer (some) mes­sage about ac­cep­tance would be so misog­y­nis­tic to give in to the most clas­sic (and out­dat­ed) fe­male stereo­types.

If only all those prob­lems could at least be saved by de­cent songs, maybe this wouldn’t be so ter­ri­ble. But apart from one or two (“A Mil­lion Dreams” is quite nice, ac­tu­al­ly), the rest is close to in­suf­fer­able – al­though this is com­pen­sat­ed by a few good chore­o­gra­phies here and there, like a dance on a rooftop among sheets that “dance” along or an­oth­er us­ing a trapeze rope. Af­ter Bar­num also be­comes a hero by sav­ing someone’s life; con­vinces a crit­ic that his ex­ploita­tion of peo­ple is a cel­e­bra­tion of hu­man­i­ty; and hears one of his “at­trac­tions” tell him that he “gave them a real fam­i­ly” (for­get­ting that he was a jerk a few mo­ments be­fore), per­son­al re­al­iza­tion falls from the sky with an­oth­er pas­teur­ized song and joy­ful danc­ing. Of course.

And I won’t even talk about how the film in­cor­rect­ly sug­gests that Bar­num in­vent­ed the cir­cus or the non­sen­si­cal mo­ment in which Char­i­ty says to Bar­num that they al­ways took risks to­geth­er – when in fact he spends the en­tire movie mak­ing plans and de­ci­sions with­out ever con­sult­ing her. It would be too much to ask from the writ­ers, co­her­ence. If this is what a mod­ern mu­si­cal is sup­posed to be or look like, then I pre­fer to stick to the old ones, thank you.

Jan­u­ary 12, 2018


3 Comments

  1. I went into this movie with high­er ex­pec­ta­tions than, only be­cause mul­ti­ple peo­ple in my so­cial group loved it, and my daugh­ter’s dance recital was done to the music.however, I was en­tire­ly dis­ap­point­ed. I felt no per­son­al con­nec­tion to any char­ac­ter and that is­n’t be­cause I am not a “freak” by mod­ern stan­dards. Each char­ac­ter was just cheap­ly de­scribed and shal­low. I did not know the di­rec­tor of Moulin Rouge also di­rect­ed The Great­est Show­man. But the en­tire time I watched The Great­est Show­man, I was think­ing “I should be watch­ing Moulin Rouge for the hun­dredth time, in­stead of this garbage”.

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