What makes for a good film is just about impossible to quantify, no matter how much time we spend trying. The criteria changes not only from person to person but from genre to genre, each restricted to a peculiar and unwritten code of what they are going to deliver. Action movies don’t have to be stupid, but they do have to blow things up well. Comedies don’t have to be smart, but they have to be funny. And musicals… musicals have to be sappy. Actually that’s not fair, or accurate. Film musicals are the last great vestibule of old school movie magic, of emotions slathered onto broad canvases and finales unafraid to be sentimental. They are the opposite of cynicism or modernism (regardless of how modern some musicals try to be), which means they have the freedom and responsibility to reach for the cheap seats in a blatant attempt at manipulation and quest to grab joy.
It goes without saying that they fail at this task frequently.
But when they get it right you get the lightning in a bottle, which is Meet Me in St. Louis or The Wizard of Oz; confections of light and air which really do engage with that old movie requirement of taking us out of our everyday lives. The Greatest Showman does not reach those kind of heights no matter how much it tries (and God how it tries), but it’s as much a success for its quest as its resolution. Not every song works, the plot is boiler plate and predictable, and momentum fades as it goes on, but even when its frayed edges are showing, The Greatest Showman exhibits a sheer joie de vivre so encompassing it’s impossible to resist.
It seems impossible that no one has made a musical about P.T. Barnum (Jackman) before. An inveterate showman, his feel for the grotesque was topped only by his natural ability as a salesman. In many ways a living embodiment of the American Dream (right down to its worst historical excesses), he was a rapacious entrepreneur always intent on the business which would put him over the top, in part to prove himself to his wife’s (Williams) snobbish family and in part to live up to his own demands for himself. The chance to do both emerges from the dusk on a visit to a curiosity museum which soon becomes the home to coterie of curiosities collectively known as P.T. Barnum’s Circus.
It should surprise no one that Barnum, or at least the musical version of him, fits Jackman like a glove. Similar to James Cagney, Jackman is a through-and-through song-and-dance man who just happens to have another career as a big-screen hard ass. All of that fades away when he gets to put on the dancing shoes and belt out a ballad and The Greatest Showman offers plenty of those opportunities for him. The songs by La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are not the best they’ve ever put together, but Jackman and his cast are strong enough to paste issues in the weaker songs and make the stronger ones fly, especially a duo with playboy Carlyle (Efron).
After the initial success of his museum, a society-led backlash builds from both the rich and the poor. Seeking to buy respectability, Barnum hires castoff Carlyle to connect him with the upper echelons of society, eventually charting a nationwide tour for the world’s most celebrated opera singer (Ferguson). As his star rises further, he begins leaving his circus past behind him in a quest to create even more opportunities for his wife and children, unaware that he is pushing them away at the same time.
Sure, it’s not the most original showbiz plot ever; really it’s more like every other rags-to-riches performance story. But in the world of the musical, the cliché is as much a benefit as a hindrance, creating an understood language to launch the song and dance numbers from and offer options for a big, sentimental finish. Sure, it makes the attempts at larger themes – like Carlyle’s growing attraction to trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya) regardless of station – ring hollow, but (and I don’t say this often) it’s better off without them and is smart enough to know that.
Bright, brash, colorful, musical, unassuming, not trying to be more than it is, The Greatest Showman is in both plot and execution a worthy amalgamation of Barnum’s life – even, if not especially, in the made-up parts. A good musical is hard to find and for whatever flaws it has, Showman is at heart a good musical.
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