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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Greatest Showman

I'm visiting family for the holidays. The plan on Christmas Eve was to see a movie, and since we all went, from my mother down to my seven-year-old nephew,the choice was The Greatest Showman, the sanitized story of P.T. Barnum that is pretty lousy except for Hugh Jackman.

Barnum was a great showman, no doubt about it, but he was also an admitted fraud. The film touches on that, but explains it away by saying he's just making people happy. The film ends with a card with a quote of him saying that the noblest thing you can do is make people happy. He may have said that, but according to Wikipedia, he also said that his main purpose was to fill his coffers.

Directed wanly by Michael Gracy, this version of Barnum's life begins with him as a poor tailor's son, falling in love with a customer's daughter, who is rich. He grows up, and despite her father's disapproval, marries the girl, who is now Michelle Williams. They have two daughters, and he comes up with an idea to open a "Museum of Curiosities." His daughters tell him he needs living things, so he goes out and recruits freaks, such as a bearded lady, very fat man, very tall man, and a dwarf who is rechristened Tom Thumb.

He becomes a great success despite a critic telling his readers that it is a "humbug," which Barnum turns into an advantage. He visits Queen Victoria, and ends up producing a tour of famed singer Jenny Lind.

Through all of this, the film maintains that all Barnum wants to do is make his family happen. The climax of the film, really, is that he leaves the circus behind for a night (his partner Zac Ephron takes over temporarily) to go see his daughters in a ballet recital. It's like a Kodak commercial.

The Greatest Showman is a musical, with songs by Pasek and Paul, who also supplied the songs for La La Land. They didn't seem to adjust though, as the songs for The Greatest Showman are far too contemporary. We've had films where the music was anachronistic, such as Moulin Rouge and Marie Antoinette, but the director isn't making any kind of point here, the music just sounds wrong. And it's not memorable.

In an effort to be socially conscious, the film adds a romance between Efron and Zendaya, who plays a black trapeze artist. They get plenty of stares, and Efron's parents insult her to her face. I'm sure that New York City, where the film takes place, was more tolerant of black and white having somewhat equal contact, but I wonder if it would have really been possible for a white man to kiss a black woman in the mid-1840s, even in New York.

The only reason to see this film is if you're interested in circuses, as there are a few truths in there somewhere, and for Jackman, who is an amazing performer, able to hold the screen if he's doing song and dance or playing Wolverine. I'd like to see him in better musicals, more like Les Miserables. The Greatest Showman is a misfire.

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