A prolific, if problematic, musical that calls into question how we consume art.
RATING: ★★ 1/2 (out of four stars)
What do we want out of our entertainment?
Do we want something deep? Something that will challenge us, make us think, make us feel, change our minds and hearts? Do we want something fresh, innovative, awing? Do we care about double meanings? Do we expect to discuss this thing past the lobby?
Or, do we just want to be safe, to turn our minds off and engulf the spectacle? Do we purely want to embrace the normalcy of routine and redundancy? Is it okay where the entertainment comes from, who makes it, how it’s made, what lies beneath?
Do we just want to be, quite frankly, entertained, no matter how it happens or what it means?
Thus, is the crux of the media consumer, and thus is the crux of being lifted away by the technicolor tornado of The Greatest Showman.
Hugh Jackman and director Michael Gracey’s P.T. Barnum musical plays with the same gung-ho, slack-jawed bravado as any other cataclysm of sound and song, and aims to offer the same heebie-jeebies that Broadway shows have written their checks with for decades. And, for what it’s trying to do, The Greatest Showman qualifies as “pretty good, briefly really good, momentarily pretty not good.” It’s sure not “Hamilton” or “Wicked” – think that Spider-Man musical removed from the hysterics and falling actors, or that time Daniel Day-Lewis did the Fellini movie, or the eighth time your kid watches Frozen this week.
Audiences love to be lifted by a showstopper, and credit Jackman and company for tossing them up like pop flies for any and all who get their druthers from high notes and flashing lights. Jackman’s Barnum is the father of the American circus, after all, and no one can accuse everyone involved with this film of not knowing how to put on a show. People also love generalizations, and like the headlines in a Character Counts guidebook, this film throws out plenty of generally-agreeable ideas: Be yourself! Never give up! You can do anything! Love is unstoppable! Everyone is equal! Family is a good thing!
Believe it or not, those tend to stand out even more when you set them to song.
Despite becoming somewhat of a Film Twitter meme, The Greatest Showman finds a reason to exist. Some of the numbers are good! Jackman, Zac Efron and Zendaya are talented for the material! You empathize with people who the posh 1800s New York society doesn’t like when they have their big “This is Me” moment! It’s alright!
But, once the lights go down, like any circus, it’s not really all that deep, or nuanced, or all that concerned with sticking with you.
The real Barnum is and is not the beaming showman Jackman tries so hard to be. The fictional version of Barnum can be accused of “trying too hard to fit in,” and “sometimes putting work over family,” which feel like two of the plainest knocks on the protagonist Joseph Campbell could have ever come up with. In order to anchor a kaleidoscope, everyone involved conveniently ignores that Barnum’s checkered past of abusing and exploiting his circus workers, and of propagating racism through his acts. They even find ways to just gloss over his shoddy business practices. He did good things with his show, but he also did, y’know, bad things — bad things that this iteration of the man would soon you set to the side so “the fun can begin.”
Ironic for a movie about a circus, The Greatest Showman walks a delicate intellectual tightrope – can you have fun in a movie that offers up a vision of a man that is only partially true?
Despite it all, The Greatest Showman is going to find ways to please you, no matter what it takes. It’s going to do everything it can to get a smile, to pop up a goose bump. It’s also going to move so fast, you barely consider how the film skips past the shams and shadows part of Barnum’s rise to his big top empire.
Even if you can live with the convenient absences in Barnum’s story, Gracey’s film still only works as well as a blast of confetti ever really can. The movie is a big, loud explosion of color and excitement — but one the party’s over, somebody’s got to clean it all up.