Review – The Greatest Showman

With Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Paul Sparks. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. Directed by Michael Gracey. Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl. 105 minutes.

poster-largeThere are certain genres that Hollywood used to excel at and now seems to get right only by accident: westerns, romantic comedies, musicals. It’s gotten so some critics and moviegoers can’t even tell the difference anymore, so that the leaden “La La Land” was hailed year as the return of the musical, instead of being recognized as the derivative mush it was.

In what we can only hope won’t be a series of bad musicals, we now get THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, with Hugh Jackman playing P.T. Barnum in a cartoonish and whitewashed version that has only a passing resemblance to history. Of course, dressing up Barnum’s life with a lot of hokum might be said to be keeping with the spirit of his character: he exploited “freaks” – the midget “Tom Thumb,” a bearded lady, conjoined twins Chang and Eng – to sell tickets to a gullible public. In this movie, he creates a “family” where these outcasts all belong. This no doubt would have surprised Barnum.

The filmmakers then made a series of mistakes. They decided to make their movie a musical. They apparently rejected adapting an already existing musical (1980 Tony nominee “Barnum”). And they hired Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – who wrote the lyrics for “La La Land’s” unmemorable songs – to pen the songs here. The result is a treacly mess.

As told here, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams) in spite of the fact that he’s poor and she comes from a wealthy family which objects to the marriage. Through chicanery and nerve, he launches his museum of oddities which slowly morphs into what we come to be known as a circus. Although it’s a success, he faces opposition from a snooty critic (Paul Sparks) who finds the show appalling and from local ruffians who hate it for reasons never entirely clear. He brings in a successful playwright (Zac Efron) to help him appeal to the “carriage trade.” However, Barnum is not satisfied with financial success. He wants legitimacy and respect, which he attempts to obtain by producing the American tour of Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a singer known as “the Swedish Nightingale.”

While all this is going on, viewers may find themselves dreading the next musical number, with an array of undistinguished songs that Jackman and company try to sell to no avail. The music and lyrics are repetitive and once one gets the simple message of each song there’s no reason to go on, but go on they do. Jackman is an experienced song-and-dance man on stage, and showcasing him in a vehicle where he’s not Wolverine is an appealing idea. However, after this and the earlier “Les Misérables,” it may be a long time, if ever, that he gets a chance on screen again. For all his energy and cute poses, the staginess of the production numbers will remind many why movie musicals went out of fashion.

The paint-by-numbers nature of the story further undercuts the production. When Efron’s genteel character falls in love with the African-American aerialist (Zendaya), you know it’s only a matter of time before they have to confront a watered-down version of 19th-century racism. When Barnum abandons his family to go on tour with Lind, the film tries to have it both ways: he’s accused of having an affair with her but – at least here – he really didn’t. Cue his wife’s forgiveness.

“The Greatest Showman” is a film that will be quickly forgotten. As such it’s unworthy of its subject or its star.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


10 thoughts on “Review – The Greatest Showman

  1. You probably did not like the Sound of Music either. Read the reviews from the people that matter — the fans. Many think it’s the best movie they have ever seen! You should not be reviewing movies. Get a life doing something else. You are a numbskull.

    1. Another person taking his cue from President Trump and unable to cope with someone having a different opinion. Here’s a clue: it’s at 50% at Rotten Tomatoes, with the critics literally divided, and took in only $14 million at the box office for the weekend for fourth place behind not only “Star Wars” but “Jumanji” and “Pitch Perfect.” Anyone who has seen the film is entitled to their own opinion, but anyone who said it was “the best movie they have ever seen” hasn’t seen many movies.

  2. This film is meant to be enjoyed – not over analysed. Audience reviews are over 90% because of the way it makes people feel, which is missing in a lot of movies these days. Is the writing amazing? No. The story line is basic and the characters are not well developed (which is why I can see the point of view of the critics – expect I think Hugh Jackman was great). But it does the job of letting the audiences escape and the actors/music really do sell the emotion so I disagree that this movie will be quickly forgotten. Although I cannot see it winning awards it is sure to be a fan favourite.

  3. Unfortunately Mr. Kimmel must have never experienced or forgot the magic of the Barnum and Bailey Circus as a child. For those of us who remember that magic, this is a powerful portrayal of one of the greatest visionaries whose magic continued for more than 100 years until just last May, 2017…this extraordinary story about a man much larger than life brings back those magical days of our childhood. Bravo to the visionaries who brought to the big screen one of the greatest musicals ever produced. According to iTunes, the musical score from The Greatest Showman is the most downloaded “album” in over 60 countries. The most important details of Barnum’s life are woven into this movie. That and the stunning sets, breathtaking choreography and most powerful lyrics make this a movie for the ages. Not to mention, not a vulgar word or scene in the entire movie. Bravo!

    1. Actually I went to the circus several times as a child and an adult, and also know something about Barnum so I know what hokum the movie is.

  4. Two months later, and it’s still going strong in the top ten every weekend…breaking records for “legginess”. Just this past weekend, my friend and I had to find another theater to see it in because we showed up assuming it wouldn’t be sold out. It was. The soundtrack is still #1 on itunes. Seems to me this movie will NOT be forgotten anytime soon.

    I also find it funny that you seem to have missed one of the points the movie makes. A theater (movie) critic finding no joy in the theater (movies) is really sad. You saying, “…I know what hokum the movie is.” sound a awful lot like the critic in the movie saying, “Does it bother you that everything you are selling is fake?” My answer to you is the same as Barnum’s answer to the critic. “Do these smiles seem fake?”

    1. And my answer to you is that the “Transformers” movies also make money. They’re still crap. Just like this one is.

  5. I didn’t see this movie when it came out because of the reviews. My wife finally got me to go see it last week. Wow, I guess I put too much faith in you guys. Was it a great work of art? No. Was it a great representation of the man? No. But it was a fun movie that also made you think about some of our social problems. And at the same time gave us some great songs and wonderful choreography.

    1. Great songs? That’s a matter of taste. But if it worked for you it’s not my job to tell you you’re wrong. I offered my take of the movie. You clearly had a different reaction.

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