The truly amazing thing about The Greatest Showman is the utter commitment and dedication the actors show to such mediocre material. And, on that note, it’s kind of a miracle that the music is somehow not the worst part of the film (and I really don’t care for Pasek and Paul’s music; they’re not bad, I just find them utterly mediocre and forgettable). Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, directed by newcomer Michael Gracey (with reshoots and edits allegedly by James Mangold), and featuring songs from Tony and Academy Award-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, The Greatest Showman tells the story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and his rise to fame through the advent of his famous circus, Barnum’s Circus. Joined by Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, and more, The Greatest Showman explores the lives of those around Barnum and how he and his circus forever changed the theatrical experience. (Mild spoilers ahead)
I have not been shy about how little I care for the music of Pasek and Paul in the context of the various films and musicals they’ve been a part of, so it should be a surprise when I say that the music is easily the best part of The Greatest Showman. That’s not really a compliment to the songs, however, but more of an insult to the script of the film. There really isn’t a plot to this film. There’s some kind of bare bones minimum story at play here, but it’s mostly in an effort to go from one song to the next – a trend that’s surprisingly common in musicals from Pasek and Paul, actually. But, oh man, the script and story that’s at play in The Greatest Showman are so boring that even the best songs couldn’t save this movie. It’s funny; The Greatest Showman is definitely not a good movie, but it also doesn’t have the audacity to be a really bad movie either. It’s just a boring one. The actors are trying their hardest and the songs and – stunning – choreography really make a valiant attempt to save this film, but none of that can save this script that’s so uninterested in the story it’s presenting to the audience that it can’t even be bothered to try.
To be honest, I don’t actually know if it’s the script’s fault the film is so boring. By that, I mean that without actually reading the original shooting script, it’s hard to say if the script is actually the problem here. It’s been reported that the film underwent some reshoots – as all films do – and was obviously put through the editing process, a process that can often make or break a film. So, all of the problems with the story of The Greatest Showman could just be the director, Michael Gracey’s doing. He did have to have help with post-production and reshoots, after all, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. I’d be curious to read the original shooting draft of the script, though, to see exactly where these problems originated from. If I had to make a guess, however, at who was responsible for the problems this film has, I’d say it’s a mixture of both the script and the directing. There’s so little characterization in this film that I can’t imagine it was all just cut out in the editing bay but the film also has such lackluster directing that I wouldn’t be surprised if Gracey did make the script worse than it already might’ve been.
“So,” I hear you asking, “what exactly are the problems with the film?” Well, that’s a loaded question. A better question would be: “What’s did the film do right?” The answer to that question essentially begins and ends with the performances of the actors and the choreography of the musical numbers. The film is full of stunningly strong choreography. It’s the kind of choreography that many Broadway shows would kill to have and the choreography easily elevates Pasek and Paul’s mediocre songs into musical numbers that are actually enjoyable. Additionally, every single actor in this movie really gives the best performances they can – both in their musical numbers and in their regular dialogue-driven scenes -, given the mediocrity of the material they’ve been given to work with. The best actors and singers can’t make Pasek and Paul’s songs sound anything better than rejects from Top-40s pop radio nor can they elevate a poorly written script into anything better. With that in mind, it’s amazing that the actors are able to give performances that are as enjoyable as they do.
Hugh Jackman shines in this film. He’s easily the best part, solely because of the enthusiasm he brings to his role. Vocally, he’s sounding so much better than he did in Les Miserables and it’s a joy to hear his gorgeous baritone on the big screen. Efron is also at the top of his game in this film. It’s nice to see him return to the genre that started his career. The rest of the cast are also at the top of their games, especially those portraying the various circus acts. Unfortunately, the only actors who are really given anything to do are Jackman, Ferguson, Efron, Zendaya, and Michelle Williams. Keala Settle is given a solo in a song or two, but she has a total of like 10 lines in the entire movie and disappears for large chunks of the film, as do the rest of the circus acts.
In fact, the lack of focus on the circus acts is probably the film’s biggest weakness. P.T. Barnum was a despicable man. He was a racist and he took advantage of people who lived on the fringes of society and were frequently taken advantage of by everyone. Nobody needed a film like this that whitewashes how truly awful he was. So, since The Greatest Showman wasn’t interested in providing a remotely accurate portrayal of the life of P.T. Barnum, it could’ve, instead, opted to focus on the lives of those he employed in his circus. And, for a hot minute, it seems like they might do that. But, for a musical that seems all about letting your freak-flag fly and being yourself, The Greatest Showman feels cold, calculated, devoid of originality, and utterly safe. For a movie that’s all about celebrating the wonders of diversity, it spends absolutely no time developing any of the circus acts. The closest they come is the romance subplot between Efron’s Phillip Carlyle, a playwright from New York’s upper society who becomes Barnum’s partner and Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler, an African America acrobat and trapeze artist. But even then, they don’t develop the character of Anne Wheeler any further than being a love interest for Carlyle and an easy metaphor for race relations during the time period.
Every aspect of The Greatest Showman feels like it went through several different committees and executives before it got approved. It’s a film that wants to celebrate the differences in all of us but feels so utterly mainstream that it can’t come close to appealing to the outcasts it wants to appeal to. It’s a film that wants to be a subversive musical with a message of inclusivity that can’t be bothered to develop its diverse characters into anything other than stereotypes and whitewashes the racist history of its lead character. It’s a film that wants to harken back to the olden days of Hollywood musicals but can’t manage to create a song or musical number that will even come close to being remembered decades from now the way audiences remember songs from classic movie musicals (such as Singin’ in the Rain or The Sound of Music). I mean, its best songs aren’t even the ones being pushed by the advertising campaigns. (“This is Me” and “Come Alive” are easily two of the worst songs in the movie. They’re boring and sound exactly like every other pop ballad that’s on the radio. The best song is Jackman and Efron’s “The Other Side”, which is a lot of fun and features some of the most inventive choreography. If there’s a song from The Greatest Showman that will be remembered decades from now, it’s that one.)
In summary, I can’t in good faith recommend The Greatest Showman. I adore musicals and I’d love more than anything for a true movie-musical renaissance. However, The Greatest Showman isn’t going to be the film that brings about that renaissance. It’s unoriginal, uninterested in its characters, devoid of a memorable score, and has nothing unique or original to say. If you want to watch a true musical that celebrates society’s outcasts, watch something along the lines of Hairspray. If you want to watch a musical that is subversive and had things to say about the society in which it was written in, watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hair, Bare: a Pop Opera, or others of their ilk. If you want a fun, family-friendly affair that feels like an homage to musicals in general, watch something like Something Rotten! or Shrek: the Musical. The Greatest Showman isn’t very good and it doesn’t have the audacity to be so-bad-it’s-good (like Rocky Horror or Repo! The Genetic Opera). So, I can’t honestly recommend it.
(2 out of 5 wands)