Main cast: Hugh Jackman (Phineas Taylor Barnum), Zac Efron (Phillip Carlyle), Michelle Williams (Charity Barnum), Rebecca Ferguson (Jenny Lind), Zendaya (Anne Wheeler), Keala Settle (Lettie Lutz), Sam Humphrey (Charles Stratton), Austyn Johnson (Caroline Barnum), Cameron Seely (Helen Barnum), Paul Sparks (James Gordon Bennett), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (WD Wheeler), Daniel Everidge (The Lord of Leeds), Shannon Holtzapffel (Prince Constantine), and Gayle Rankin (Queen Victoria)
Director: Michael Gracey
To call The Greatest Showman an autobiographical musical on the life of PT Barnum, the savvy businessman and marketeer that founded the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus as well as the source of many quotes on how we people will buy anything that is marketed well at us, will be a lie that even the late Mr Barnum will roll up his eyes at. Under the direction of first-timer Michael Gracey and with the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, this movie is a vapid, shallow, one-dimensional greeting card that offers the most cringy kind of sentiments wrapped up in music reminiscent of the excesses of the 1980s.
In this one, PT Barnum is the son of a tailor while his childhood sweetheart Charity is the daughter of a snobby toff. The two kids spend the next two decades singing A Million Dreams, a song that encapsulates the death throes of someone with late stage diabetes complications. Barnum apparently makes a decent living at a shipping company – decent enough to buy a suit and make me fall in lust all over again with Hugh Jackman, at least – and marries Charity, spawning two horribly precocious daughters that say the most obnoxiously “precious” things never seen since I stopped seeing those “kids say the most precious things” shows in order to preserve my sanity. Alas, the company goes bankrupt, Barnum cheats his way into getting a loan, collects a passel of sideshow attractions, and forms his museum of curiosities. That doesn’t go well until his creepy sage daughters give him the idea of incorporating living curiosities. So he recruits the freaks, the outcasts, and such as well as WD and Anne Wilder, siblings whose “freakiness” is apparently being black trapeze artists, and the greatest show on earth is born.
All of the above happen through a progression of songs that make everything Barnum does come way too easily for me to care about him. The main issue here is that Barnum eventually sinks his attention on showing the rich toffs who once spurned him that he’s better than them, and this causes Charity to sing non-stop about how she really wanted a simple life and all she needs to be happy is Barnum and her two daughters. I don’t think she’s talking about how those two obnoxious daughters are handy to be barbecued when she and her husband are broke, homeless, and hungry – then again, it’s always the rich bastards whining about how sad their lives are, isn’t it?
Barnum eventually agrees – a simple life is all that matters. Although he keeps his millions of course, because even the people of this show are not heartless enough to pretend that the best simple lives are not those that come with enough financial security to keep one from ever worrying about rent or food money. Oh no, those creepy daughters, whose daddy can buy them anything and everything, can’t get along with other kids! Let me scratch my ass and pretend to care.
All the fascinating and complicated nuances of the real PT Barnum’s life are boiled down to this simple, banal story, complete with how every drama is resolved by a singalong. Jenny Lind is reduced to being a woman who quit the show because she’s in love with Barnum and he refuses to reciprocate her feelings. This is tied up to the bewildering schizophrenia of this movie: it only hints at Barnum being a savvy marketeer to whom nothing is too sacred enough to exploit for gains, but every time it does this, it quickly backtracks by throwing a few songs and scenes at me to convince me that, at the end of the day, Barnum is just a bae daddy who just needs some time to understand that the best things in his life are in front of him. As a result, poor Barnum never rises above being this simplistically drawn protagonist who is as deep as a puddle on a hot afternoon.
Does Phillip Carlyle even exist, or is he a character created just for Zac Efron to come in and draw in the teens? As for the rest, oddly enough the real and most famous member of Barnum’s show, General Tom Thumb, is sidelined to showcase instead the fat bearded lady Lettie Lutz who doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia entry. I guess fat chicks are a hotter on an affirmative action poster these days compared to straight white male midgets.
The show ends on a Hallmark-friendly note, but without even touching on the real Mr Barnum’s fascinating philanthropy, politics, and eccentricities. I feel like weeping on behalf of that man. His kooky and endearing life, mutilated and condensed into this… this… thing, sigh. Also, so many interesting characters here – Jenny Lind, especially – are reduced to being props for this boring, insipid version of PT Barnum’s story.
On the bright side, aside from the blisteringly soul-draining pap A Million Dreams, the other songs are endearing numbers that remind me fondly of those big, blustering ballads of the 1980s. These songs are predictable and even banal, mind you. There is the usual “freaks are standing up for themselves” song, and then we have the usual “I’m just the wife of a wealthy bloke who can afford to buy anything, being so sad because my husband is not spending more time with me!” lament, and such. But ah, Never Enough is a beautiful lighter-waving pap, and Rewrite the Stars – the duet between Zac Efron and Zendaya – will always have a spot in my heart. Hugh Jackman makes a graceful apology for his painful vibrato in Les Misérables by delivering a more listenable, impassioned performance here – his solos especially in From Now On make me squirm a little uneasily in my seat as I feel like a giddy teenage girl who wants to write love letters to him. From Now On, by the way, wins my two thumbs up for being this glorious Frankenstein’s monster of a song that incorporates both bagpipes and gospel-style choir. I do wish they have cast someone with a stronger vocal timbre at times, but my eyes can’t disagree with the torture of having to look at this beautiful, beautiful man for a little over 100 minutes of cheese.
And I also hate to say this, but every second of Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron getting all bromance-y in The Other Side is just so hot. Cheesy, corny – yes – but two cute guys prancing and brushing against one another while looking into one another’s eyes – yes, please. Oh yes, yes, yes.
I am very torn about The Greatest Showman, in the end. The story is crap, and its portrayal of PT Barnum as some bad Hallmark movie hero is indefensible. And don’t get me started about those horrible, horrible children. But oh, the music, and one hour forty plus minutes of seeing Hugh Jackman in his element! I don’t know whether I loathe it or want to watch it again just to admire the scenery. Perhaps, despite everything, this movie does enough to sell me the swill it is serving, and perhaps, perhaps… this is something that PT Barnum himself would approve.