I have said it before, and I am confident that I will have to opportunity to do so again, but very little on this earth frustrates me more than seeing a film that leaves me entirely ambivalent. I would take a thousand Justice Leagues or Suburbicons (both of which are quite terrible) before I would watch a 5/10 movie intentionally. Even if my reaction is hating the film and nearly everything about it, I would gladly take that over having next to nothing to say about the film at all, and if nothing else my frustration could turn into a fun review.
In case you couldn’t tell by the rambling and largely pointless paragraph you just read, I have nothing much to say about The Greatest Showman. It is a big Hollywood musical which I guess is kind of refreshing in 2017, but after last year’s La La Land just about everything here falls flat. The best that can be said for Showman is that Hugh Jackman is still a pleasure to watch and that the filmmakers managed to put a wholesome spin on an inherently exploitative business.
The story follows P. T. Barnum as he created what would eventually become the largest and most famous circus in the world. Disappointingly, much of the actual development of the show is abandoned in favor of essentially spending two hours convincing the audience that the circus isn’t exploiting “abnormal” people or abusing animals. Here, all characters are painted as outsiders of one type or another, and the circus is the place where they find a home and a family. One is a bearded woman, one a hairy man, one a guy who used to be poor and another a biracial couple.
I understand the intention behind this choice, but it seems odd to compare the struggle faced by people of color during the late 1800’s to the existence of a five-hundred-pound man. As misguided and very likely offensive as this is, the film approaches the topic with unwavering optimism and a heart so big that I am almost willing to write it off. It feels like the intentions were good even if the result wasn’t.
What I have a harder time excusing is the way in which the film represents women. The relationship between Barnum and his wife is meant to be a loving adventure between two friends, but the only thing that makes anything even remotely exciting for her is the latest iteration of his wacky antics. She has precisely no character of her own and exists to provide emotional stakes and passively mother their children off camera. She is defined entirely by her husband.
The only other female character of any particular significance is a trapeze artist played by Zendaya. Mercifully she is spared the one-note definition of Michelle Williams’ Charity Barnum, yet still comes out the worse of the two. Her character exists solely to be in a relationship with Zac Efron and to be black. Those are the only two things she is: black, and in love with Zac Efron. That is not a character; it’s a subreddit.
All of that aside, the film is mostly competent. The music was disappointingly modern and poppy, and it ended up sitting at odds with its time period. In La La Land, the music was almost exclusively jazz-based and lent itself nicely to the timeless aesthetic that Damien Chazelle intended. Even in Moulin Rouge, where the music was as unlike what would have been heard in Paris around the turn of the century as imaginable, the contrast was very purposeful and effective. In The Greatest Showman, the musical style just feels empty of purpose and seems to have been included for no particular reason other than that it’s accessible to just about everyone. None of it is particularly memorable, and it is a bad sign that I most likely couldn’t hum a single tune given that I only left the theater about three hours ago.
The dance choreography swings wildly back and forth between overwhelming and underwhelming. The opening sequence gave me goosebumps initially but quickly devolved into chaos. Many of the dance moves seem to be variations on Hugh Jackman playing with his hat. There was an extended sequence involving two people and a trapeze. My point being, it was all over the place. It is worth noting, though, that there were a few outstanding instances of percussive movements (hammering a nail, setting down a shot glass, etc.) that provided a palpable energy and physical dynamism to the musical numbers, and yielded the best moments of the entire film.
Additionally, Hugh Jackman goes a long way towards making up for the film’s shortcomings. His performance (both acting and musical) is mostly forgettable, yet he seems to be having such a fantastic time in every scene that it’s difficult not to smile along with him. Zac Efron is also in the film.
And now we come back full circle to my hatred of 5/10 films. They’re exceptionally dull to talk about because while they are inherently flawed, they failed to elicit a strong reaction one way or another. I wouldn’t have really regretted missing The Greatest Showman in the theater because while I enjoyed it well enough, I’ve mostly already forgotten it. On the other hand, I would never have forgiven myself for missing Justice League (which was far worse than The Greatest Showman in nearly every way) purely because I will always remember laughing my ass off in the theater.
So what does all of this mean? In the end, we are left with a big-hearted, mostly fun movie. Would I call it a good film? It’s a toss-up. Would I recommend it to musical die-hards? Probably not. Is it on the same level as any classic Hollywood musical or their modern contemporaries? Not even close. Is it a mostly harmless way to spend two hours with your kids? Absolutely.