Skip to main content

Well, hyperbole isn’t the worst crime.

The Greatest Showman
(2017)

(SPOILERS) I can see why The Greatest Showman was such a big hit, but largely, I still have to side with the critical drubbing it received. As a patchwork of infectiously catchy songs (all with the same effusive crescendos to get you properly emotionally uplifted) it has a certain appeal, in an extended pop-promo sense. As a movie, it’s barely coherent.

It’s one that largely dispenses with characterisation, assuming audiences will get the gist of the fundamentals, knowing that all you really need is an intermittent belter to fill in the fine detail. And I guess director Michael Gracey and screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (the latter really ought to know better, but then the last two Twilights and live-action Beauty and the Beast would probably have something to say about that) were right, as it’s probably the most impressive example of a sleeper success of the last few years, written off on opening but subsequently proving that positive word of mouth and cynicism-free allegiance can still turn a leaky ship around.

To me though, much of what’s here is only palatable as borderline parody, right from the opening flashback of young PT Barnum launching into A Million Dreams with his childhood sweetheart, then reprising it as big Barnum Hugh Jackman, now wed with Michelle Williams’ Charity. This sets the stage for what follows, the briefest of sketches considered sufficient to tell us what’s going on, favoured over imparting the characters with any actual emotional life. Barnum’s freaks get zero development, aside from Zendaya, who isn’t actually a freak. Keala Settle’s bearded lady delivers This Is Me (it should have taken the Best Song Oscar, no argument there), but there’s nothing else to her, while Sam Humphrey’s General Tom Thumb is only distinguished by being an obnoxious little shit. As a result, they’re only really informed by Barnum being ashamed of his discoveries when he’s finally invited into high society.

Which kind of fits, as the picture’s most interesting feature is that it has the audacity to pass off Barnum’s exploitation as aspiration, progressiveness and inclusivity. I’m not talking the real Barnum here (the picture’s such an obvious fantasy, I’m genuinely surprised anyone would have a serious beef with it on that score), merely the nuts and bolts of putting societal rejects and fringe dwellers on display for the leering, voyeuristic inspection of others and testifying to it creating a positive familial atmosphere among them. I mean, that’s what the songs tell us, so it must be so, despite their having abuse hurled their way by an angry mob each night and the filmmakers being as remiss as Barnum by omitting to characterise the freaks in any way other than sum-them-up-in-a-stage-name freakishness.

Gracey doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s doing when he isn’t choreographing a number, such that the picture’s cutting can become bewilderingly distracting during a simple conversation (witness Barnum meeting Zac Effron’s Carlyle for a drink before they break into song). The song-and-dance routines themselves are fizzy and eye catching, but all operate according to the same formulaic uplift, designed to leave the audience on a serotonin high. Barnum has an arc of sorts; hoisted by his own petard and distracted by the genuine talent of opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), he needs bringing back down to earth, to his family and freaks, but it’s all pretty perfunctory in execution.

I mean, I’d much rather watch something like this, where there’s evidently genuine passion involved, than the dead-eyed, reheated stage antics of the likes of a Chicago, but you still need to come up with a something that works coherently as a movie, when all is said and done. This most resembles the kind of ADD, frenetic, fractured fare Baz Lurhmann routinely comes up with, although thankfully Greatest Showman isn’t quite as horrifically off-putting as his Moulin Rouge. Still, the movie sufficiently resembles the results of spending a coke-fuelled, weekend bender in the editing suite (no less than five editors are credited, including two Oscar winners, suggesting a serious salvage job was called for – certainly, James Mangold was sequestered to oversee post-production) that one can call it an achievement, but that isn’t necessarily a compliment.

Occasionally, the picture actually threatens to become involving. The Zendaya-Effron romance works surprisingly well, particularly as Effron does his best to preen his way through the picture (he’s particularly laughable when puffed up in his Barnum outfit at the end, literally handed the baton to take over compere duties). Ferguson too, albeit not performing with her own pipes, offers a frisson Williams has no chance to compete with, relegated to wifey on the fringes. And Frederic Lehne brings the necessary loathsome credentials as Barnum’s father-in-law.

What The Greatest Showman does highlight is how difficult it is to get the musical formula right, such that La La Land’s modestly satisfying achievement is a relatively rare one. The recent Mary Poppins Returns could have done with some of Showman’s restless energy – and crucially, rousing tunes – while Gracey could have done with a touch of her restraint. Between them, there’s probably an accomplished musical. This also feels like the natural outcome of two decades of music-orientated reality shows, such that one can cut straight to the edited highlights without worrying about the messy, involved business of actually telling a story or coming up with motivation and character. I suspect the restrained response to Poppins and contrastingly effusive one to this means there’s more of the latter style to come. Certainly, Greatest Showman 2 has the greenlight, whereas it might be another couple of decades before there’s a Poppins 3.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…