‘The Greatest Showman’ review: Pop and spectacle
Before I get admonished like James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), who P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) calls “a theater critic who does not find joy in theater,” let me concede that there are joys of all kinds to be found in Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman. (READ: 8 great things about ‘The Greatest Showman’)
The film opens with a pulsating number where we see Barnum, clad in an impressive crimson costume, leading both his troupe and the audience to his rousing anthem’s infectious beat. The number seamlessly segues to show a much-younger Barnum (Ellis Rubin), a scrawny teenager who is brought by his father to a mansion where he meets and entrances a rich man’s daughter. Over another impassioned song about lofty dreams and stirring goals, we witness Barnum grow up to be the charismatic man played grandiosely by Jackman as he spirits away the love of his life Charity (Michelle Williams) to his humble New York apartment despite the disapproval of his stern father-in-law.
It’s all very exhilarating, like a refreshing breath of sea breeze when all you’ve chalked up for days is city smog.
Gracey wastes no time for lengthy interludes that dissect his characters down to their most hidden dirt. His film isn’t an inquisition, it’s a diversion – a medley of all the crowd-pleasing tropes known to modern-day Hollywood. Its main event is the rags-to-riches story of the enterprising Barnum. Its front act is a barebones romance between a socialite’s son (Zac Efron) and an African American trapeze artist (Zendaya). Its sideshows are the little stories of empowerment of the unique men and women who Barnum has collected to form his lucrative business venture.
The plot is scant but, strangely, it's enough for the film’s purposes. It appears wider than it is because of the undeniable allure of its pop musicality, but take away the songs, the dance and the extravagant pageantry, and the film you’re left with is a predictable narrative of charismatic underdogs who are fated to win in life.
Power of spectacle
Gracey’s film is all about the power of spectacle.
The film perfumes itself with all the razzle dazzle it can come up with, turning Barnum, who in real life is more a shrewd and maybe despicable businessman and politician than the noble philanthropist of the film, into an endearing larger-than-life figure, a unique capitalist cum saint whose only sin is unquenchable ambition. If only for its unmitigated use of smoke and mirrors to carve inspiration out of a man whose historical reputation is quite dubious, The Greatest Showman, while not exactly the greatest show as the opening number advertises, is a good one.
There are no complications here, no sordid conflicts and incriminating dilemmas that are irrelevant and unnecessary to the film’s ultimate goal of making a musical extravaganza out of a real person’s life. In fact, writers Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks refuse to grant Barnum the discreet pleasure of having a marital affair or the moral predicament of being an exploitative entrepreneur. Barnum here lacks the depth of a breathing and living character, but as long as he can sing and motivate with slogans about tolerance and inclusion, it doesn’t really matter.
If only for its unmitigated use of smoke and mirrors to carve inspiration out of a man whose historical reputation is quite dubious, The Greatest Showman, while not exactly the greatest show as the opening number advertises, is a good one.
Let it enchant you
There is nothing wrong in indulging in the pleasures of a slickly designed movie. Let The Greatest Showman enchant you. However, don’t stop at finding joy when there is clearly something more than meets the eye, and there is something vastly more intriguing bubbling beneath all the glitter that becomes 'the greatest show on earth.' – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass. Since then, he's been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.