The grandest movie musicals are a way to abandon your real world worries and cares. “Forget your troubles. Come on, get happy,” Judy Garland sang in SUMMER STOCK. Musicals remain a transcendent avenue for storytelling that routes straight from the head to the heart, enrapturing all your senses, enveloping your soul. But what happens if the musical you’re watching only reminds you of those same real world worries and cares? What if it stands as an ambitious failure? What then? Director Michael Gracey’s THE GREATEST SHOWMAN squanders most of the audience’s good graces, managing to turn what should’ve been an epic masterpiece into an epic failure. While there’s some genuinely resplendent work exhibited, it buoys a lackluster narrative that questionably positions an ego-driven white savior as an underdog dreamer who saves society’s marginalized people. Do yourselves a favor: buy the soundtrack and make up your own plot to connect the dots in between the songs. What’s there now is utterly tone-deaf.
Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) came from nothing and worked his way up, hustling and persevering in a cruel, cold world. He’s always been scrappy, a walking, talking version of the clichéd phrase “necessity is the mother of invention.” However, his latest business venture sends him on a journey towards a jackpot of legitimacy and wealth. He’s got a vision of a variety show dancing around in his head, featuring human and animal performers with astounding skills and unique looks. With dutiful wife Charity (Michelle Williams), their two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), and financial partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) encouraging him, what could go wrong? Lots when you’re the hero.
There’s a lot of love and heart that bursts from both the performers on the screen and the talent behind the camera. Ellen Mirojnick’s costume design is saturated with spectacle, color and brilliance. There’s a tactile, show-stopping sense of elegance and grace to it. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is sparkling. His work heightens the romance infused throughout every inch of the frame. Nathan Crowley’s lavish production design, as well as most everyone’s artistry, is best celebrated in musical numbers like “Rewrite the Stars,” the only number to make solid use of its circus location in a breathtaking manner, and in “The Other Side,” a lively duet, featuring Jackman and Efron. This sequence is particularly outstanding as it’s dripping in homo-erotic tension (intentional or not), so much so it’s welcomingly suffocating and almost justifies your ticket purchase. Almost.
For a studio film of this high caliber, and with oodles of pedigreed, passionate performers behind it, it comes as a shocking surprise how so much talent, preparation and opportunity can be so wasted due to the lackluster “book.” Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script utterly fails at filling in the connecting pieces between the musical numbers. And boy does it lack the punch the musical numbers have in spades. It plows through details, glossing over things in its truncated, hobbled one hour and 45 minute run time. Characters mostly talk and sing at each other and yet nothing feels resolved after they do. The musical numbers – featuring songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who wrote the lyrics for LA LA LAND) – are forced to do all of the emotional heavy-lifting. The anachronistic modern pop-influenced songs consistently feel like a separate entity from the dialogue-driven scenes, like these two elements were written independently. It’s almost as if no one understood how movie musicals work, and yet 85% of the people involved are incredibly accomplished at this very thing.
As far as ambitious, original musical failures go, Gracey’s film finds some commonality with the infamous disaster that is ONE FROM THE HEART. It’s a romance for a certain type of audience where the artistry – the blood, sweat, and tears – that went into making it can be appreciated. Though I believe that wrong-headed storytelling doesn’t mature – it only sours further upon later viewings – people might find its flaws endearing in the years to come. That said, I’d still give Coppola’s film the edge since the parts in between the show-stopping musical numbers at least make sense and have characters interacting with one other, leading to satisfying conclusions. He was trying to approach the genre in a radically different way, whereas SHOWMAN follows the same path as every musical before it.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the real celebratory heroes are relegated to tertiary status. Barnum’s cast of “oddities,” led by bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), may sing about acceptance and how they’re unwilling to retreat into the shadows in “This Is Me,” but the material jettisons them right back into the background once their time to shine is over. Theirs is a story is about courage, identity and bravery in a world that doesn’t take kindly to others. This should be the main story. They are the true underdogs and dreamers – not this white entrepreneur. The society-accepted women in Barnum’s orbit are also dealt short-shrift. They’re one-dimensional archetypes used for the sole purpose of servicing the male arc. Williams, as the long-suffering wife, sings about sharing his dream in “A Million Dreams.” She’s not allowed to have dreams of her own. Later in “Tightrope,” a song about how she has the sads when her hubs, the holder of her dreams, goes on the road with powerhouse songbird Jenny Lind (a luminescent Rebecca Ferguson), Charity expresses some moderate, passive frustration. It comes out of nowhere. There’s no build to the song’s emotional pull. Jenny, too, falls prey to the filmmakers’ lazy characterization as they make her an “other woman” trope. In real-life, she had a reputation for being moral and philanthropic. She called the shots, intelligently re-negotiating her contract to give more money to charity and make Barnum sell tickets at reduced prices for cash-strapped fans. I’m guessing that Jenny Lind is who Ferguson signed on to play – not this shell of a character.
Only Jackman is bequeathed somewhat of a three-dimensional character – albeit one many might suffer an adverse reaction to. For a majority of the time, Barnum comes across as a selfish exploiter of talent. The screenwriters can make him say he’s there to “celebrate humanity,” but the audience isn’t buying it. This is a man who famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It’s abundantly clear he’s built his empire on their backs. The filmmakers struggle against embracing him as a flawed, complicated anti-hero and instead push a very forced perspective that he’s a likeable, if not loveable, savior of the oppressed and disenfranchised. Being subversive would be a big risk, but it’s assuredly one the real Barnum could appreciate, as it would yield a greater applause, payoff and legitimacy.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN opens on December 20.