Before we jump into The Greatest Showman, something needs to be said. As a community of critics and fans, we need to stop treating each troubled production like Vincent Canby did Heaven's Gate back in 1980. Too often, we set a film's critical narrative in stone before they're even released, zeroing in on reshoot reports and pre-release buzz instead of the finished product that's projected before our eyes. With the invention of the Internet and social media, these broadcasts damn art in double time, murdering it on the front end with lightning speed, giving voices a platform from which to shout about how bad a movie is before the general public is even allowed to see a single frame. It's a shame, really, and a trend that should be nipped in the bud ASAP.
Michael Gracey's debut feature The Greatest Showman is the latest motion picture to suffer this fate, with rumors of extensive reshoots and the movie being potentially shelved after principal photography commenced in November '16. Critics were on a double-secret embargo leading up to its release, causing chatter online with folks wondering aloud - or, at least, on Twitter - "how bad can it possibly be?" In all honesty, The Greatest Showman is a modern musical whose songs are over-produced pop ditties (with lyrics by La La Land duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), blaring at max volume while Hugh Jackman hits every mark like the pro he is. "This is the moment you've been waiting for," he half-sings in the very first scene, and for many it is, only for all the wrong reasons. If you've shown up solely to trash the latest production touted as a trainwreck by the press, buddy, I've got a 'good news/bad news' scenario for you.
The good news is that Gracey's deafening musical is incredibly watchable, once you get past the breathless but clunky opening act. Running at a scant 105 minutes total, The Greatest Showman has been cut to the bone, repackaging a number of familiar story beats as P.T. Barnum (Jackman) rises against all odds, and then falls because of his own hubris, only to pick up the pieces and start again due to the empowering love of his wife (Michelle Williams) and small daughters. What's weird is that Showman feels like a sprawling Broadway show, ramped up to 1.5 speed on your motion smoothed television set, and then all the songs are auto-tuned by the same goofs behind the boards for the new Imagine Dragons record. While this may sound awful on paper (and some of it is), it's also strangely pleasing - the mall cinema equivalent of how the latest cover album playing on the overhead speakers in Target gets stuck in your brain after five minutes of Christmas shopping. It's garish re-mixing run amuck, but still pleasurable in a mundane way.
The bad news is that Gracey's trying really hard to please everyone, and that just doesn't work at all. The Greatest Showman is a movie all about the magic of show business, without really seeming to know a thing about show business. Instead of giving us a crash course in how Barnum renovated an ancient wax museum into a sideshow attraction in the middle of New York City, it wants to blare a musical number at you about the beauty of entertainment itself. There's the disingenuousness of a dime store magician lurking beneath the gaudy surface of The Greatest Showman, as each song seems to be dialed into becoming a maximum distraction from the fact that the plot is basically just a mish-mash of clichés, all strung together as our ringmaster rises from the streets, shows up his in-laws by earning his riches, and then turns his back on the family of "freaks" he promised a stage, guaranteeing to showcase their eccentricities instead of exploit them. "This Is ME!" the targeted hit single screams at us, but by the end, we're not even sure we know Barnum at all.
Maybe that's because this is the "Disneyfied" version of P.T. Barnum. Let's face it, one of the major hurdles that The Greatest Showman is going to face with most people is the simple fact that it rewrites history, transmuting a glorified carnival huckster into some kind of champion for the marginalized individual. That just isn't fucking so. Barnum was a hustler at heart, perhaps not the greatest showman, but certainly the slyest. If there was something deformed or odd about your appearance that he could make a buck from, he'd throw you up in front of folks to spend their hard earned money on. Watching that shrewd business sense become perverted into a caring individual who "learns" from his experiences taking these outcasts under his wing feels insincere at best on a sheer conceptual level. But don't tell that to screenwriters Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks, who sweep that sort of objectivity under the rug in favor of delivering a man who's a better person by the final reel because of his little monsters.
The reason any of this works at all is Jackman, who's now had two defining roles in the same year. While Logan will undoubtedly (and rightfully) be the one most point to when '17 is all wrapped up, Barnum actually feels like the more appropriate representation of Jackman as a performer. In a movie this unapologetically BIG, the song and dance man gets to go BIGGER, taking even the worst scenes and hoisting them up on his shoulders in a Herculean feat of pure entertainment. We've always known that Jackman was one of the most charming individuals to ever grace the silver screen, but The Greatest Showman is a true test of his seemingly immeasurable depth of talent: an objectively bad movie made better just because he shows up and gives his all to every moment. We forget the real Barnum because Jackman sells us on this Barnum: a wide-eyed dreamer who just wants to give his family the best life possible and make something of himself in this harsh land called America. It's all bullshit, but when Wolverine winks at us, we buy it wholesale.
It helps that The Greatest Showman flanks Jackman with a pretty solid supporting cast. Williams' Charity actually feels like a real person - a rich girl who supports her poor husband through thick and thin because she truly loves and wants to see him succeed. The collection of misfits Barnum puts together are also impressive, ranging from the Bearded Woman with a heavenly voice (Keala Settle), to a grown man in a kid’s body (Sam Humphrey), to a giant, a fire-breather, and many, many more. Zac Efron is arguably the only performer who actually competes with Jackman while the two share the frame (as Barnum's producing partner), and Spider-Man: Homecoming's Zendaya is practically begging to become a worldwide superstar with every minute of time that she spends onscreen as a trapeze artist. In short, if you actually take a few moments to sift through the rubble of The Greatest Showman, there's arguably diamonds in that rough to be found.
Sadly, many are probably going to focus too hard on the movie's flaws to even give its simple pleasures a shot at winning them over. Sure, Rebecca Ferguson - playing classy Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who tempts Barnum toward the more respectable realms of entertainment - is awfully overdubbed during her huge solo number. Plus, the downside of getting the Cliff's Notes version of Barnum's life sped read to you is the fact that almost zero drama is given a chance to properly develop and thrive. But Gracey's The Greatest Showman is all about the theater of spectacle, and wowing you into submission before you even have a chance to question many of its idiosyncrasies. In a way, it lives up to its title by totally trying to hoodwink you the entire time, knowing full well that you shouldn't be taking any of this as a history lesson or attempt at intriguing dramatics. Instead, you should just grab the armrests on your seat, because Gracey's going to try and blow you out of your chair.