‘The Greatest Showman’ Offers Spectacle, but Little Truth
Things get problematic in this musical celebration of PT Barnum’s life
The Greatest Showman tells the story of PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman), reframing it as a triumphant movie musical. It goes back to his humble beginnings as a tailor’s son. He falls in love with Charity (Michelle Williams), who comes from a rich family. The two are married and live somewhat happily within their meager means. But Barnum has much bigger dreams, and he risks everything on putting together a museum of oddities that eventually becomes the prototype for his famous circus. But even as Barnum achieves success beyond his wildest dreams, he struggles with a yearning to be accepted by the upper classes.
It might be worth mentioning to start with that the movie isn’t at all an accurate retelling of the Barnum story. This is practically a given in most big films about real people these days, but the extent to which this particular movie bends reality in order to make the story fit within its themes is pretty remarkable. And the changes it imposes only result in making everything less interesting than real life. To its credit, the film does generally adhere to the principles of its inspiration, crafting somewhat compelling spectacle, even if it’s all empty.
PT Barnum isn’t the most intuitive choice for an uplifting, inspirational movie musical. He was by all accounts a very complex man prone to exploiting people as he chased profit above all else. The film reframes his use of ‘freaks’ in his shows as an act of empathy, borne as much out of his recognition of these people’s inherent value as human beings as much as his instinct for business. This case would be more convincing if the movie was actually more interested in parsing that idea, in studying the strange gray area in which Barnum operated. But it instead pushes the conflict aside, using the empty uplift of the music to provide resolution where the writing and the directing can not.
It would also be more convincing if the film was more interested in building rounded characters. Like Barnum himself, the film seems content with taking advantage of the unusual nature of its subjects, basically using them to add an element of strangeness and inherent tragedy to sequences, even as the film trumpets the supposed dignity that these characters have. The film isn’t really able to form a coherent conflict throughout its fairly lengthy runtime, the narrative feeling unsure as it chases the empty uplift of its music.
But if one can ignore the problematic narrative, the movie does offer up some interesting visuals. The music sounds a little too designed to be radio friendly, but that’s not really a weakness. Performances are the biggest asset the movie has. Hugh Jackman is just the kind of actor that leaves everything in front of the camera, and the joy that he’s clearly getting from playing this role comes through. The film squanders Michelle Williams and Rebecca Ferguson, though, the movie unable to give them any meaty material. Zac Efron and Zendaya light up the screen for a little bit through sheer performance, but their little arc feels tacked on to the movie.
The Greatest Showman might be best enjoyed out of context, perhaps as just a series of videos on YouTube. As a larger piece of work, one might have to contend with the listless, historically inaccurate narrative that manages to feel trite to exploitative while braying for inclusiveness. Taken as just a series of disconnected musical performances, the individual scenes are a little easier to swallow, the spectacle and the performances offering up the clear merit of the production, even if the music isn’t to one’s taste. Unfortunately, within the walls of the cinema, one doesn’t have the option to just fast forward to the songs.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.