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‘The Greatest Showman’ Is Only Fit for Suckers

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The Greatest Showman, a musical biography of P. T. Barnum, is a film made decades beyond its sell-by date, and yet it’s a perversely fitting end to a whirlwind 2017. It’s an intensely political work whose creators and stars are oblivious to its true nature; anyone familiar with the real Barnum will know him to be a racist, a swindler, a businessman famed for his success — and his bankruptcies (sound familiar?). But The Greatest Showman covers up the more interesting facets of the man in favor of dangerous myth-making.

Hugh Jackman plays the eponymous showman, but first the audience spends what feels like an eternity with Barnum as a child. He works as an apprentice for his father, a tailor. He meets his future wife (played as an adult by Michelle Williams) while fitting a suit for her wealthy, abusive father. Then, after a by-the-numbers song about future hopes, Barnum is suddenly an adult and married.

Barnum works as a journalist to support his rapidly expanding family before setting out on his own. He decides to put on a show, and fraudulently obtains a massive loan to create a museum of curiosities and oddities. Up to this point The Greatest Showman’s many digressions from reality are mostly benign, but with the adult Barnum they become particularly malignant. In reality, Barnum’s first act as a showman was to purchase Joice Heth — a blind, enslaved black woman. He exhibited her as George Washington’s 161-year-old maid, despite her being under 80. There’s no room for a detail like this in the candy-colored bizarro world of The Greatest Showman.

Michelle Williams and Hugh Jackman in "The Greatest Showman"

Barnum’s museum of curiosities was headlined by his attempts to hoodwink suggestible audiences. Its headline attraction was the Feejee Mermaid, a grotesque creation in which the upper body of a monkey was sewn onto a fish’s tail. But the film focuses more on majestic (real) stuffed animals, and less on his deceptions.

After a trite scene in which his daughters urge him to incorporate something living to his museum, Barnum goes in search of “freaks.” (In a surprisingly delicate but foolhardy move, that word is only spoken by bigots who protest his performances.) Barnum rounds out his show with the stereotypical display of unusual faces: the bearded lady, the short man, the giant, the tattooed man, and the fat man. Accompanying them is Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), an African-American trapeze artist. In order to manage his increasingly unwieldy organization, Barnum also attracts Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a bored socialite and playwright.

The failures of The Greatest Showman are all the more startling in light of its surprisingly strong cast. Jackman is a wise choice to play Barnum; his theatrical bona fides are well established, and he’s often an entertaining performer. But this sanitized version of Barnum wastes his ability to play darker, more complicated characters. Jackman grins ear to ear for most of the film, the kind of mugging that’s necessary to reach the back row when performing on stage, but it’s excessive on screen. His version of Barnum is pure fantasy, lacking any human desire. Williams mostly looks bored as his wife, and their relationship has all the signifiers of passion, but none of the real thing.

Jackman was cast long before filming his final X-Men film, this year’s Logan, but it’s a shame The Greatest Showman wasn’t tailored to his strengths in that film. His fame is almost singlehandedly due to his ability to play an angry, sometimes loathsome comic book character. If anyone could have played the disagreeable showman while also singing and dancing, it’s Jackman.

Efron and Zendaya are also capable of being electrifying performers, but they’re forced to work with uninspiring songs. In lieu of Oscar-winning actors, the film’s publicity singled out its lyricists, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won the Academy Award for Best Song in La La Land (2016). It was an unintentionally hilarious attempt to reach for the tiniest bit of legitimacy — unless it’s Stephen Sondheim, no one see a musical because of a lyricist. The real problem lies with hack composers John Debney and Joseph Trapanese, who simply don’t know how to write songs. The final product plays as if they wrote a full score for the film, and then merely pasted some lyrics on top to give the appearance of having songs. At least two of the numbers have reprises later in the film, but good luck identifying them as something previously heard.

First-time director Michael Gracey’s lack of inspiration doesn’t help matters. He never finds an intriguing way to film the musical numbers, which often devolve into static shots of a crowd of people dancing at the camera. The backdrops tend to drop out during songs, presumably in a stylized attempt to resemble a stage musical, but it ends up looking like they just ran out of money before finishing the sets. One wishes Gracey would have felt free enough to steal from more successful musicals, if only to make his film somewhat cogent. One of the screenwriters, Bill Condon, also wrote the screenplay for Chicago (2002). That film’s dark energy would have been a welcome corrective to the sappy morass of The Greatest Showman, but its wit and energy are nowhere to be found in his work with co-screenwriter Jenny Bicks.

The film that they have produced is startling in its bad faith recounting of Barnum’s history. In addition to purchasing and exploiting a slave, Barnum trafficked in racist minstrel shows in the early part of his career. The idea that he would welcome black performers with open arms, or that he would endorse interracial relationships within his troupe, is farcical, as is the belief that he treated his sideshow performers as equals. But Barnum was also a man in transition; later in life he would put on anti-slavery plays like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and would align himself with abolitionist forces. There’s a fascinating story there, and the kind of reversal that Hollywood loves, but it’s far too complicated for The Greatest Showman.

Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman

This isn’t to say that movies about historical figures are required to faithfully stick to the record; films shouldn’t be judged by their veracity alone. But a movie’s ability to play with the truth has limits. In a film like JFK (1991), it’s clear that the audience is experiencing Oliver Stone’s imagined version of the Kennedy assassination. The Greatest Showman, on the other hand, treats its audience like a bunch of gullible marks. In Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen’s history of American irrationality, he makes a compelling case for Barnum as a foundational hoodwinker. His gift for deceit and self-promotion is a direct precursor to America’s recent plague of fake news and fibbing politicians. It’s tempting to say that Gracey and his colleagues have Disney-fied Barnum’s life story with their glossy product, but it wouldn’t be accurate — Disney isn’t foolish enough to get into a circus ring with this story.

P. T. Barnum never actually said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but the creators of The Greatest Showman must believe it to be true. They’ve made a film only a sucker could enjoy.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Danielle Masursky

    January 22, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I knew it wasn’t a documentary and I didn’t expect it to be true to the Truth. I found the songs utterly addictive, and my daughter and I have been humming them for weeks. I loved the themes of the movie: be yourself, love yourself – we can never have too much of that sentiment. According to you, I’m a sucker, but I don’t feel like one. I feel like someone who got their $12 dollars worth for a change.

  2. Mike

    September 7, 2019 at 9:49 pm

    Dude, get over yourself already. It’s just a musical. It’s not a documentary. Almost every movie/musical that is based on a real person or event hides many truths. So let’s take this as it’s meant to be, an entertaining event, nothing more and nothing less.

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