‘I’ ON CULTURE
I really wanted The Greatest Showman to be a good movie. I have always like Hugh Jackman and enjoy musicals. I saw the ads and decided that this might be the perfect Christmas time movie. Unfortunately, although there are some fine things in the film, it is more than a bit of a mess.
Essentially this is the story of how P.T. Barnum (Jackman), a con man extraordinaire, became a success as he created one of the world’s great circuses. Before that, we see him and his long-suffering wife Charity (Michelle Williams) going through more than a few privations. Barnum’s real success, however, comes from bringing “people who are different” — a very obese man, a bearded woman, a tiny midget and others — into the circus. There is a big deal made about how he has “empowered” these people. Of course, some (and that includes me) might argue that calling them “freaks” as people gawk and sometimes laugh at them is not a great way to achieve “empowerment.”
Barnum also brings in celebrities like the singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and traditional circus acts. A major focus is on aerialist Anne Wheeler (Zandaya) and her relationship with Barnum’s partner Carlyle (Zac Efron), which brings everyone front and center to having a mixed-race couple at that time, and tries to create a “magic moment” with a kiss between the two of them in public high in the air.
The real problem with the film is not that it romanticizes Barnum’s life. The issue is that it does not make it really interesting. The original music is not bad, but there is nothing there that is truly unforgettable. The numbers essentially are music videos in the middle of a melodrama.
The problems with the “empowerment of the freaks” is trickier. Barnum does point out that they are people who would normally be laughed at and marginalized, and now they are doing it for money. There is no doubt that he treated them far better than just about anyone else of the time. However, he exploited them even while protecting them.
The racial element is, frankly, boring. It is a good thing that we have gotten so used to ignoring so many things about race that the two young leads really come across as two good-looking people falling in love rather than people of different races in a shocking relationship. Ninety years ago, Showboat had a similar kind of story, and it really was not all that shocking then.
As a result of this, what we really have is a pleasant film that goes nowhere. It does not have the heft to be a real musical. Remember, there are classics from ancient Showboat (“Old Man River,” “Can’t Help Loving that Man of Mine”) that are still sung today. Most people who do not buy the songs from the movie will not remember them a week after they see the film.
Jackman, of course, is excellent. He is a superb singer, dances well and is a top actor. It is a shame that the material fails him. Williams is marvelous. After many years, she remains one of my favorite actresses, able to show strength even while vulnerable. Paul Sparks as Barnum’s main newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett is over the top and shown as evil, but that is something probably required to balance things out. Efron is a good young leading man. He handles the acting and singing well for a rather improbable character. Zendaya is charming, does a nice job on the music and seemed quite at home on the trapeze. I would like to see more of her; she has a bubbling personality that seems to come through.
I know this review sounds a bit muddled. There was a lot I did like. The cast was good. But the story itself seemed to go nowhere, and the music was too ordinary. It called out for some strong songs, and they just were not there.
Walking out of the theater I heard the same kind of mixed views. There were a few people who really liked the film and more than a few who were disappointed, although no one said they really disliked it.
If you are a big Hugh Jackman fan or are just nuts for musicals, see it. If not, it will be showing on television soon.