'The Greatest Showman' Review: A Con Artist's Bauble Of A Movie...With Great Songs

Oh, boy. Where to begin with The Greatest Showman?

Generally speaking, if you feel the need to cover something up, then it's a pretty good indication that you know you've done something wrong. To that end, it's a leading indicator of what you're in for that The Greatest Showman's cast includes Paul Sparks (always great, always underserved) as critic James Gordon Bennett, and saddles him first with the task of pooh-poohing the protagonists' efforts, and then begrudgingly admitting, "another critic might have called [the circus] a celebration of humanity."

For better or worse, I am not that critic.

The Greatest Showman, directed by Michael Gracey, is a musical based on the story of how P.T. Barnum (played here by Hugh Jackman) began the Barnum & Bailey Circus (which, incidentally, closed for good earlier this year). Nominally, the idea is a winner, and it's not unlike a rollercoaster in that the highs that it reaches are thrilling. But a rollercoaster can get away with lacking a story and lacking thought; a movie, not so much.

Most of The Greatest Showman's problems lie in the fact that it's about a known huckster and racketeer. P.T. Barnum was no saint, and this movie does its best to smooth over all those rough edges and deliver something that's as family-friendly as Barnum was ruthless and exploitative. But it can't quite do that well, either. There are just enough allusions to Barnum's mind for money that it's impossible to take him as the straightforward protagonist that the movie would like you to. When one of his would-be recruits protests that audiences will only laugh at him, Barnum's response is to say that they're already laughing — why not make a profit? This inability to brush past Barnum's less savory traits effectively turns The Greatest Showman into a sort of circus-Breaking Bad. Everything Barnum does, he pretty much does for himself, except unlike Walter White, he gets no comeuppance.

The only reason that this waffling doesn't completely sink the movie is that Hugh Jackman is perhaps the most appealing actor alive. He's so earnest and committed — and good at what he does — that it almost doesn't matter that the rest of the movie doesn't measure up. There are few things in life (where movies are concerned, at least) that measure up to the pleasure of a lavish, bombastic musical number, and even fewer when said musical number features Jackman at its center.

That said, Jackman's casting makes the decision to gloss over Barnum's story even more of a pity. He's perfect at playing the heel — take The Prestige or Pan, for instance, or try looking up footage from his turn as Gaston in the stage version of Beauty and the Beast. The best number in the film is the one in which Barnum wheel-and-deals playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) into coming on as his partner, in part because it's the most contained, and in part because it's the only number that weaponizes Jackman's charm. Of course, making the musical's protagonist a devil in disguise wouldn't do; this is pure entertainment, after all. But at the very least, this very easily could have been a musical about a made-up impresario, and avoided the awkward gymnastics that this movie has to pull in order to remain clear of Barnum's more problematic legacy.

In other words, in its effort to avoid any difficult subjects, The Greatest Showman only becomes more difficult to reconcile with the history it's trying to present. It doesn't help that the movie seems to conflate race with growth and genetic disorders. Maybe there's an excuse to be made for that given the popular views of the period in which the movie takes place, but it feels like a misguided, insulting choice when the movie is vaunting progressive, modern thinking.

There's also precious little time devoted to the "outsiders" that the movie is supposed to offer a stage. Barnum is portrayed as an outsider due to his social class, but that's hardly comparable to what the rest of the people populating the circus were subject to. This isn't a complaint that the focus is on Barnum — it's inevitable that he would take center stage in a musical about the founding of the circus — but more time is devoted to Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who, like Barnum, only suffers from having been born poor, and to Bennett, who is there to try to misle critics like me, than to any of the other circus members except perhaps Zendaya as acrobat Anne Wheeler. In the end, though, maybe it's fitting for the story of P.T. Barnum that the movie should so forcefully cast him as a hero, and reduce the people that he was exploiting to set dressing.

And maybe it's fitting that I was still mostly entranced. Most of the songs cooked up by duo Pasek and Paul are extremely catchy, and the opening number in particular was cranked up to eleven to the point that I thought that The Greatest Showman might end up being my favorite movie of the year. Obviously, that isn't quite the case, but I did buy the soundtrack as soon as I left the theater, which is more than I can say for some other films from this year that I thought were better made. The Greatest Showman is a con artist's bauble, which is to say: it'll swindle you and it'll lie to you, but it's not without its charms.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10