As piece of pure escapism with a nod to family, you’d do well with Greatest Showman. Much like Barnum’s approach to everything, it really is holiday humbug (in the old sense) to set your feet tapping and to pull a bit at your heartstrings. First time director Michael Gracey really deserves some kudos for keeping the unrelenting energy and flow going through to till the end. However, it was a little rushed to really have the impact he wanted.
As a story, it is a bit less successful. I’d like to think that some of what the writers Jenny Bicks (The Big C) and Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) did got left on the cutting room floor. The film is about 15-20 minutes too short for the story they want to tell. The bones of the tale are great, but the overall effect is lacking. Without a moment to breathe, jumping from song to production number to song, we lose the immediate humanity necessary to allow us to really connect with Barnum and his family. The songs don’t feel like they come out of a moment so much as attempt to substitute for one. Sure, spectacle is great, but emotion is what makes it truly, you should excuse the expression, sing.
It starts off well enough (in fact wonderfully … with a very Fosse-like opening I have to think came from Condon, given his history with adapting Chicago). We get to see PT grow up and get what he wants and then watch him scrabble for what he thinks he wants.
Hugh Jackman (Logan) sells Barnum perfectly as a man of huge dreams, big heart, wide talent, and minimal scruples. He and Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) work well together and almost make a legendary pair (but for the weakness in the script). Zac Efron (Baywatch) delivers credibly as well, though his purpose is muddy in the story. And Rebecca Ferguson (Life) is a surprisingly layered character, making the most of minimal screen time.
Barnum was always going to be a challenge. The story touches on the bigotry, lawlessness, and classism, but only in the lightest way, afraid to really tackle the issues. Or maybe I just wanted it to be a bit more relevant for today rather than just an entertainment. Also, with the recent ending of what remained of his namesake…you can’t view the circus today without thinking about the current and exposed realities.
While the music by Paul (La La Land) and score by Trapenese (Straight Outta Compton) are pretty catchy and fun, the lyrics by Debney and Pasek’s (La La Land) lyrics had moments, but often just repeated themselves. Again, I expected more from those talents than simple pop tunes. While the reuse of the lyrics as dialogue worked for the character development, they missed the opportunity to flesh out the characters and tale even more in the songs.
Basically, I wanted this to be more than it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. In fact, I plan on seeing it again and perhaps will change my (ahem) tune. Sometimes expectations can get in the way…I want to see this film on its own terms and give it another shot, not unlike Paul Sparks (House of Cards) critic in the film, James Gordon Bennett. This movie is a crowd pleaser, to be sure. I just expected a little more substance in my meal.