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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.

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