Director: Michael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya
Initial Thoughts: This film was the cinematic equivalent to cotton candy. All light and fluffy and saccharine sweet, the memory of which would dissolve just as easily.
**Spoilers below! Come back after you’ve seen this film!**
The post-holiday season is often a wasteland for films, an exercise in futility for theater-going crowds. I realize the release for ‘Greatest Showman’ was technically toward the end of December, but I didn’t get around to it until after we’d rung in the New Year, and it was disappointing enough that I’m going to lump it into the post-holiday pile.
I find it especially telling that although this film and ‘La La Land’ share song-writers, audiences tend to fall into one of two camps, those who enjoyed ‘Greatest Showman’ disliked ‘La La Land’ and vice versa. I’m in the vice versa camp for sure. This may in fact be entirely situational because I saw ‘La La Land’ having just moved back to my beloved California after an otherwise terrible year in the Midwest, and I very much love California. Naturally I would adore a film described as “a love letter to Los Angeles.”
Because so much liberty was taken concerning historical accuracy, one doesn’t really need to know much about the time period or about P.T. Barnum’s life going into this film. Still, for continuity’s sake, here is the synopsis from IMDb:
Orphaned, penniless but ambitious and with a mind crammed with imagination and fresh ideas, the American Phineas Taylor Barnum will always be remembered as the man with the gift to effortlessly blur the line between reality and fiction. Thirsty for innovation and hungry for success, the son of a tailor will manage to open a wax museum but will soon shift focus to the unique and peculiar, introducing extraordinary, never-seen-before live acts on the circus stage. Some will call Barnum’s wide collection of oddities, a freak show; however, when the obsessed for cheers and respectability showman gambles everything on the opera singer Jenny Lind to appeal to a high-brow audience, he will somehow lose sight of the most important aspect of his life: his family. Will Barnum risk it all to be accepted?
‘Saccharine’ really is the best descriptor for this movie, and the whole attempted seduction was about as subtle as a frying pan to the dome. I could’ve forgiven the wild historical inaccuracies, the extreme disconnect of forcing contemporary musical genres like pop and hip hop into the songs and dances if the execution was either a bit more subtle or taken further into the extreme. Baz Luhrman slays at this with movies like ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘The Great Gatsby,’ but Gracey’s ‘Showman’ can’t hold a candle to these films. The songs, though enjoyable enough in the moment, are also instantly forgettable upon leaving the theater. I would be hard-pressed to even hum a melody at this point.
The story Gracey’s determined to tell in an-hour-and-forty-five-minutes bombards audiences with themes of family, community, and inclusiveness, yet the film doesn’t take any actions to actually expound upon said themes. A fine example of this is the assemblage montage of Barnum’s freaks, and yet it’s only the Tom Thumb character and the Bearded Lady who get enough screen time to really shine later on.
And speaking of shine, it’s obvious that Hugh Jackman can delight even in an otherwise disappointing film. He’s tremendously charismatic and continues to prove it time and time again, whether he’s a snarling and cantankerous mutant or a smarmy big top ringleader. Other notable performances include more of the top-billed cast: Zac Efron is quite enjoyable as Phillip Carlyle (his getting-into-show-biz number with Jackman was a welcome delight), and of course Zendaya and her trapeze antics were lovely (especially the number with her and Efron). [Side note: Though the trapeze number with Efron and Zendaya was a bright spot in the second act of the film, the watered down commentary on racism and class-ism concerning their relationship was ham-fisted while having minimal committed follow-through. Snooze.]
Final Thoughts: I wish I had gone to see ‘Pitch Perfect 3’ instead.