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The Greatest Showman Review – The Greatest Showman Celebrates Exploitation With the Magic of Song and Dance
As you have no doubt heard by now, the Academy Award-winning songwriters of La La Land have written the lyrics for a new musical film, so there is almost no way you’re not reading this on your way back from seeing The Greatest Showman. If not: Spoilers will follow, so tread carefully if you don’t know the general story of P.T. Barnum.
Listen, I don’t know if The Greatest Showman is a great movie, or even a good one, and maybe that’s the point: It is, after all, about a guy who paraded human beings with unconventional body shapes before leering, laughing audiences and got rich doing it. But the movie did two things any movie should do: It took me out of my panicked head, and it gave Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron 320 opportunities each to stand with their arms outstretched in victory. Seriously, this movie is about 60 percent Scott Stapp pose.
It is the story of Barnum’s rise and fall and redemption, set to tunes that are a perfect cross between contemporary Christian and the music that plays under animal rescue videos. (And not that many songs, either: there are about four, and each one gets at least one slow, ironic reprise.) It goes deep into how phony Barnum’s early shows were—the fattest man gets padded, the tallest man gets stilts—but it’s hard to judge him for it when the movie begins with 15 minutes of CGI-enhanced dancing. There is a number in which, if you pay close attention, you will see Jackman and Efron drink 24 shots of whiskey apiece, yet somehow never kiss. There is a sexy adultery subplot, expressed entirely through a head rested on a shoulder and a quick closed-mouth kiss, so as to hang on to that family-friendly PG rating. (And the whole thing is orchestrated by The Other Woman so as to generate publicity for her music career, which at this particular moment in history seems…not great?)
We see Barnum go from striver to loser to massive success to social climber to victim to brand-new, wiser man, and it’s possible that it all happens in about 72 hours. Because here’s the thing: Early in the film, when they are poor, one of his young daughters whispers a wish into P.T.’s special wishing lamp (because what is a poor young dreamer without a wishing lamp for his children to whisper into?). All she wants is ballet slippers. So then Barnum goes out and creates the world’s first circus and everyone hates it and then he learns a lesson about whatever and he changes a few things and everyone loves it and he becomes a sensation and he surprises Michelle Williams with the massive Hamptons mansion they used to play in when they were children.
Of course it’s all fixed up and furnished now, and it’s all theirs, but wait there’s more! He then pulls out a box and gives it to the daughter, who is the same age she was at the beginning, and there are ballet slippers in it! P.T.! You didn’t maybe swing by the 19th-century Danskin store at any point during your career ascent to drop a nickel on the damn slippers and get the kid on her way? You’re just doing all your shoe and mansion shopping at once? Interesting. Anyway, she gets into ballet, and is great at it, but the society kids in her dance class won’t accept her because her dad is tacky and they say she smells like peanuts, so she drops out. P.T. then takes an opera singer under his wing, and tours the world with her, and she gives him the respectability he craves, and they have the most chaste affair in the history of the world, and it makes all the papers, and Michelle Williams leaves him for five minutes. Meanwhile, everyone hates the circus again for some reason, and they burn it down, and Barnum is discouraged until all the circus freaks sing at him and change his mind, and then he moves the whole thing to a tent (the way you know a circus now, if you’re into that kind of thing), and he is redeemed and he ends the movie watching his daughter do ballet and she is still eight years old. So the Barnum family and all the lives they touched had a busy week, it looks like.
There is also the matter of the circus freaks. They are the thing that makes the circus click with the public, though we never quite see how, and that kind of makes all the difference. We do see Barnum pursue a very small adult man to convince him to be in the show, and the very small adult man says, “You want to put me in front of a crowd to be laughed at.” Barnum says no: “I want to dress you as a general and put you on a mighty horse.” And the very small man is suddenly into it, and that’s what they do; though they never show the crowd, you can be reasonably certain the crowd is laughing at a very small adult man dressed as a general on a mighty horse. These people were exploited then, and they’re exploited here, but then they reclaim their dignity in a big “Born This Way”-type number called “This Is Me” that’s supposed to make everything okay. And maybe it will for you! It’s a big world. It takes all kinds.
Also, there is an inter-racial, inter-class, probably anachronistic romance between Zac Efron’s fancy playwright and Zendaya’s trapeze artist which gives them both a chance to flip and swoop all over the place and to be gorgeous doing it. Their scenes are like a really nice screen saver.
In summary, I cannot stress this enough: The lyrics were written by the Academy Award-winning lyricists of La La Land. So get yourself to the multiplex and take in those sweet, sweet Oscar-adjacent words. The Greatest Showman is absolutely full of shit, but it will allow your head to cool off for an hour and forty-five minutes, which, this Christmas perhaps more than any other, might be exactly what you and your family need.