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Review: The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman
12.20.2017
7 10

PLOT: A musical detailing the rise of sensationalist P.T. Barnum, who came from nothing and created the phenomenon known as "the circus."

REVIEW: From the opening few minutes, I had a feeling I would like THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. Maybe like isn't the correct word; appreciate is more exact. I'm not a musical guy by any means, but I do admire movies that go for broke in enthusiastic, crazy ways, that wear their hearts on their sleeves. Very early on, it's clear THE GREATEST SHOWMAN was going to be a movie like that, and it was. It's goofy, corny, sometimes laughable, but I don't deny that I was always engaged in it, impressed by its unwavering earnestness and bravado. I'm not going to sit here and recommend it to everyone; if you don't think it's going to be your thing, it likely won't be. There are so many people I still wouldn't advise see it, and yet... I didn't expect to have any fun during it, and I ended up having fun.

The film is a romanticized look at how P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made himself a legend. Starting off as the scrappy son of a poor tailor, P.T. made it his mission to become a success. He married the love of his life (Michelle Williams, apparently supposed to be the same age as Jackman), had two daughters and lived in poverty for a long time while trying to hawk a lame museum of fake curiosities before the light bulb went off: he'd sell the people real curiosities, which included bearded ladies, strong men, fat men, acrobats, etc. While the proper element of New York society objected to these "freaks," the average Joe ate it up, and before long Barnum had the biggest show in town: The Circus.

The Greatest Showman movie review Hugh Jackman Zac Efron Zendaya

Plot-wise, the movie goes through the motions, but that's besides the point. The key to any successful musical, it helps that the songs are really catchy. Written by LA LA LAND's Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, just about every song, be they love ballads or celebrations of the circus, has its attributes. In fact, it's tough to even remember the whole lot of them when it's all said and done, so densely packed is the movie with glitzy tunes. I can't claim I'll be listening to them on repeat anytime soon, but I wouldn't mind seeing most of these sequences again. As helmed by Michael Gracey (his directorial debut), the song-and-dance numbers hum with the same kind of exuberant pizzazz P.T. Barnum peddled to the masses. Certainly, Gracey has taken more than just a cue from his main subject, gleefully presiding over a circus of his own.

When the singing and dancing stop, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN gets into trouble. Or not, depending on how campy you like your movies. The film's candy-coated veneer mixed with some really hackneyed, on-the-nose dialogue had me rolling my eyes and chuckling early and often. It's not that THE GREATEST SHOWMAN doesn't know what it's doing. Part of its superficial charm is its old-fashioned, heartfelt sincerity, and that extends from the dialogue to the direction to the wide-eyed performances of the cast. It may not be profound, ever, but it goes to great lengths to be as ingenuous as possible. In one way, I can picture it becoming something of a cult classic or midnight movie, its fans laughing along with/at it.

As for the performances, they're in keeping with the overall spirit of the film. Hugh Jackman is as charismatic as can be, looking quite like he's having the time of his life when he's in the middle of a big number. Zac Efron, as a rich playwright Barnum convinces to join him on his business/entertainment venture, proves adept at this sort of thing (don't forget he started off doing High School Musicals), striking many Movie Star poses and convincing us that he's not just cut out for bro-comedies these days. (One of the film's standout scenes has Jackman seducing, basically, Efron with an elaborate song about leaving his boring life behind and joining the circus.) Michelle Williams is condemned to the very unexceptional role of "supportive but sullen wife," as her Charity Barnum is forced to look on from behind the curtain as her husband's ego swells along with their wealth. There's an uninteresting subplot involving P.T. managing a famous opera singer that, even if based in reality, is more of a melodramatic diversion than anything else. At least the singer is played by the luminous Rebecca Ferguson, who has her own memorable solo (although her voice has been dubbed by Loren Allred). Zendaya cuts a lovely figure as an acrobat with whom the Efron character falls in love, but she's too often relegated to the sidelines, her storyline usually an afterthought.

The messages of the film are muddled. THE GREATEST SHOWMAN usually pats Barnum on the back for bringing all these outsiders and misfits together and forming a makeshift family while barely acknowledging that he is pretty much exploiting them. The circus performers get one good song celebrating their individuality - "This Is Me" - but otherwise the movie tries not to tread too heavily on Barnum's negative traits. This is almost a thoroughly idealized vision of the man, the myth, arguing that his pride, not to mention his desperation to run away from his past, were only slightly overbearing on his family, friends and employees. By the end of the movie, everyone is practically lifting him on their shoulders, honoring his accomplishments. It's fine. There's nothing "real world" about this movie to begin with, so why should we allow this hammy glorification to get in the way?

Let's be clear. The word I would use first and foremost to describe THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is "silly." Despite the effectiveness of the songs, the movie is a hyperactive and loony spectacle that is easy to scoff at. I didn't take it seriously, but how seriously does one take a three-ring circus? Even though my first (and second) instinct is to tease it, I can't deny THE GREATEST SHOWMAN gave me my money's worth.

Source: JoBlo.com

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