Mark Reviews Movies

The Greatest Showman


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Gracey

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Paul Sparks, Eric Anderson, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements including a brawl)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 12/20/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 20, 2017

It almost seems pointless to assert that The Greatest Showman is a hollow biography of P.T. Barnum, the innovative entrepreneur who invented our modern understanding of a circus. The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon uses the man's life as an excuse for a series of song-and-dance numbers. It's a musical that is so filled with and dependent on its songs that it's surprising lyricists Benji Pasek and Justin Paul aren't given a screenwriting credit.

Considering how important they are to the story and its themes, it's unfortunate that we can't always hear or understand those lyrics. That's because first-time director Michael Gracey holds true to Barnum's belief in spectacle and misdirection. This isn't just a credits-to-credits song-and-dance showcase. It's a song-and-dance showcase that punches every element of every musical number beyond its peak.

The singers' voices have been nearly crystalized in the post-recording process. The modern-pop-styled music on the soundtrack blares, so that we catch about every other word of Pasek and Paul's oftentimes fast-moving lyrics. The choruses, naturally, are clear, since the audience members have to be humming something as they walk out of the theater.

At times, we might not even notice the melodies of the songs, either, since Gracey packs the frame with motion. There's the dancing of the main company, of course, but there's also a lot of business, from camera moves to visual-effect enhancement—the finale even features a bunch of digital animals (including a pair of lions that run free in the circus ring, which seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen). Then we have the new standard editing technique for modern musicals, in which the cuts are seen as an extension of the actors' performances—as if space and time themselves have to dance, too.

This might be the first movie musical that was produced entirely with the folks in the balcony seats in mind. Part of me wants to applaud the movie for its go-for-broke styling. The rest of me is thinking that it could have calmed down just a bit.

The story follows Barnum, played with abundant charisma by Hugh Jackman, from being the lowly son of a tailor, through his attempts to create a business that will give his family the life he never had, and to his ultimate success. There isn't a plot so much as there is a series of incidents. Each is given a musical number, of course, either as a means of conveying the story or as a topper for the development of some basic plot point.

It's mostly this: a young Barnum (Ellis Rubin) meets a wealthy girl and falls in love, promising her the sort of life to which she has become accustomed (Their courtship is—you guessed it—a lengthy montage set to song). After marrying Charity (Michelle Williams) and having two daughters with her, Barnum's family is broke in New York City. He has lost his job with a shipping company, and to open a new museum strange and exotic sights, he scams a bank by putting up the recently sunk fleet as collateral.

At first, the museum is a bust, but he gets an idea: Put real people with various, noticeable differences on display. You'll know the cast of his new show: a bearded woman (played by Lettie Lutz), a little person called Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), a man with a bunch of tattoos, another man whose body is entirely covered in hair, and some others, including a talented pair of acrobats. The museum becomes a success with the public, and Barnum takes on Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a successful playwright, in order to lend some credibility to his enterprise. Carlyle eventually falls for Anne (Zendaya), one of the acrobats, but they have to hide their connection because of racial and class differences.

Even so, a theater critic (played by Paul Sparks) is leading an outcry against the show that turns into protests by moral busybodies, who, in turn, become increasingly aggressive. Barnum's own life becomes a shambles as he tries to become more "artistic," managing a famous, European opera singer named Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

It may seem like a lot of plot, but one has to take into account that each of these conflicts, these relationships, and these ideas—about prejudice against those who are different, about rebelling against the status quo, and about the true meaning of a successful life—is either reduced to or cut short by a series of songs. Since the content of the songs seems secondary to the movie's notion of putting on a grand and elaborate show, we're not offered a chance to appreciate the story, whether it comes through the succinct, song-less portions or the musical numbers.

It's a lot of flash—a loud confetti popper of a movie—with minimal attention to anything else. The Greatest Showman is admirable in its dedication to putting on a big show, but one is left wondering if there's any purpose beyond that.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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