"Showman" an Empty Spectacle
Director Cecil B. DeMille, amassed a fortune, entertained millions and skewed their perception history with his historical epics. With King of Kings, The Plainsman, The Buccaneer and many others, he bent facts to his narrative will, included just enough truth to make his films seem significant and amped up the action to generate a form of cinematic entertainment that was distinctly his own.
The Greatest Showman is the sort of movie DeMille would have been proud to put his name on. A visual spectacle with a larger-than-life hero at its center, around whom many outlandish tales have been told, first-time director Michael Gracey has concocted a tale that hangs together with the slenderest factual threads, weaving in and out of its subject’s - P.T. Barnum –life at will, rearranging the order of incidents, jiggering with the age of some of its characters and even inventing events to create dramatic tension. Obviously, Gracey and screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are far from the first to fudge facts for a film’s sake and can be forgiven to a certain extent. Problem is eschewing facts in pursuit of entertainment is far from the only problem with this movie.
Hugh Jackman is Branum and the actor’s enthusiasm and charisma holds him in good stead her. Coming from a poor family, he’s had his eye on well-to-do Charity (Michelle Williams) for some time and convinces her to run off with him when they’re of age. However, his promise of providing her with the sort of lifestyle she’s used to proves more difficult than he thought. Eventually, he buys a museum filled with stuffed animals and waxed figures of curiosities from the around the world. This enterprise goes no where but when one of Barnum’s daughters suggests he focus on living things rather than those that are stuffed, he’s struck with an idea that changes all of their lives.
As Barnum begins to scour New York City for physical outcasts, word spreads and soon he has Dog Boys, dwarves, bearded ladies and Siamese Twins lined up out the door. The focus of the film becomes obvious as the theme of accepting yourself for your own unique qualities and striving for inclusion into society is at the forefront. Problem is, this is repeated ad nauseam throughout with three major musical numbers addressing the subject. All of the performers who make up Barnum’s band of curiosities are energetic and play up their character’s unique qualities, which does help when it comes to seeing them so often.
A subplot involving a forbidden romance between Barnum’s apprentice Carlyle (an underused Zac Efron) and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) merely gets lip service throughout, not developed as it should be, while another strand involving singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Furguson), the most renowned singer of the late 19th century, and Barnum’s efforts to promote her in the states, is far too brief and all too convenient in creating false dramatic tension where it isn’t needed.
Had the songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul had been as inventive as the ones they wrote for last year’s La La Land that would have been some consolation. However, most of them are instantly forgettable except for Never Enough, a true showstopper delivered by singer Loren Allred (lip-synched by Furguson) that contains the sort of passion the rest of the songs sorely lack.
DeMille and Barnum were cut from the same cloth and no doubt both would have approved of this lavish pastiche of elaborate half-truths. Problem is, audiences today can see through this sort of sham and require something a bit more substantial than this puffery.