The Greatest Showman review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The P.T. Barnum musical aims to sucker the audience in with a display as flashy as the showman’s circus. There’s decadent staging, a toothy Hugh Jackman, and catchy songs by the lyric writers of La La Land. Perhaps it was a poor choice in marketing to slap the La La Land association on the poster. While that musical did a brilliant job infusing classic Hollywood style with an invigorating jazz taste, The Greatest Showman felt as little more than a standard score with music built for pop radio than defining any particular style all its own.
Jackman plays Barnum in a manner that celebrates his legacy rather than shines a harsher light. Any drama from Barnum’s questionable practices of forming a sideshow of freaks, being terrible with money, and potentially cheating on his wife is sugared and watered down for a pleasant PG rating. After all, if we were to focus too hard on his more disgusting aspects of showcasing fresh corpses, we couldn’t enjoy his charming and lavishing songs about putting on the greatest show.
But let’s be fair with the musical numbers themselves. Yes, many of them are well-staged and presented choreography that is always fast and detailed. The best scene by far is of Barnum negotiating with playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) at the bar, their musical conversation turning into a dance of drinks being slung and tossed across the bar. Some are more elaborate, as when Carlyle and the acrobat Anne (Zendaya) share a romantic melody amid twirling on ropes. And some are fairly simple with Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) delivering a beautifully sung opera performance, despite her song sounding more akin to a Disney fantasy than a tune of the era.
Maybe I’m seeking too much out of a P.T. Barnum musical but there’s an artificiality to its sappy spectacle that just didn’t win me over, shooing away any deeper examination of his character. This fault is most prominent with the oddities he assembles for his show. He sells them on being the stars but will quickly push them aside when fancier parties are calling. What is the response of the bearded women and differently-sized attractions when Barnum denies their entrance into a party? They sing it off, waltzing back to the stage with the song “This Is Me” without raising a fury with Barnum. How could anyone hate Barnum in this musical that portrays him as nothing less than a beautiful dreamer?
It’s a frustrating experience to watch as the film bobs and weaves past any darkness that may sour its whimsy. Barnum has a bitter relationship with his in-laws that leads him to throw his wealth in their face. Cut away before he breaks down in an emotional huff. Barnum has a big problem with spending money he doesn’t have. Cut away before we start questioning his unsound means of building up his finances. He spends an awful lot of time on the road, neglecting his family. Quick; cut to him riding an elephant home for his kids!
While I can’t deny that The Greatest Showman boasts some solid musical numbers, it never rises past a typical glaze of Hollywood wonder on a showy biopic. The enjoyment depends entirely on how much you can distance yourself from Barnum’s life and be swept up in the spectacle of it all for the music, costumes, and charms of Jackman and Effron. I guess I’m just not one of those suckers born every minute.