If nothing else, The Greatest Showman captures the embarrassment of watching a clearly uncool adult trying to be hip. Like that one time your math teacher wanted to prove he was “down” and so he tried to ride a skateboard, or even worse, said he liked Radiohead. This movie is a G-rated musical about the life of 19th Century circus mogul P.T. Barnum. Each word in that sentence is less cool than the one that came before it, and yet, The Greatest Showman insists on trying to be a “cool” movie. It loads its forgettable pop ballads with chantey choruses, hip-hop choreography, and toothless dub-step sounds. But as everyone who’s ever been a teenager knows, insisting that you’re cool will only make you sweaty. A truly cool person doesn’t care if they’re uncool, and a cool movie doesn’t either.
Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, a man who began his life as the son of a humble tailor, but managed to rise up through will power, work ethic, and charismatic salesmanship. He established a “museum” in New York City, which was more of a circus featuring trapeze artists but also what at the time would’ve been called “sideshow freaks”, such as a dwarf and a bearded lady. The Barnum of the movie is a kind-hearted family man who wants nothing more than to secure a better future for his daughters, and decides to use his passion for entertainment to do so. He sees the showcasing of “different” people in his act (i.e. racial minorities, and people with disabilities) as a way to empower them. The Barnum of real life, though… That’s another story.
It might seem a little foolish to criticize a circus musical aimed at the whole family for historical accuracy, but doing that is the only way to understand how misguided the very idea of a movie like The Greatest Showman is. The real P.T. Barnum was an incredibly creative man, which made him a ruthless -and therefore successful- businessman. He made his fame through hoaxes. He famously presented a mermaid that was actually the top half of a monkey sewed to the bottom half of a fish. He also contracted people who looked “exotic” and built fake narratives around them in order to showcase them. Most of these narratives focused on the person’s race or physical appearance and would seem offensive to a contemporary audience.
All of this, of course, is sanitized by the movie. The most egregious example is the movie’s treatment of Charles Stratton a.k.a. “General Tom Thumb.” In the movie, Barnum approaches Charles, a 22 year-old dwarf, and convinces him to be a part of his show by promising him he will dress him as a general so that people will no longer laugh, but salute when they see him. In real life, Barnum did dress Charles up as a general, and as many other characters, and made him perform in a sort of vaudeville act around the world. Charles, however, did not just join the circus. He was adopted by Barnum when he was only four years old.
If you think that sounds like a fascinating story, then that makes two of us. Just reading over Barnum’s Wikipedia page is enough to make anyone agree the man led a fascinating life. There are so many tensions inherent to Barnum’s place in American history. He stands right at the crossroads where capitalism, entertainment and social justice meet. There is so many thing to think about when considering the way he made his name and fortune. so why on earth would anyone think that the most interesting way to tell his story is to turn him into an “inspirational dreamer”? P.T. Barnum was many things, but a woke ally was not one of them.
Apparently, this movie was a passion project that Hugh Jackman had been wanting to take off the ground for a long time. What exactly drew him to material is unclear to me. From the information I could find, he seemed to have been interested in Barnum himself (which makes sense), and not necessarily on this script, which builds a typically hollow “a man with a dream” story out of the man’s life. It’s very rare for original musicals (other than animated films) to be bankrolled by big studios these days. The bargain in order to bring this project to the screen seems to have been to sand off all the edges until you have a perfectly round, and perfectly boring ball.
Even the songs, which can turn even the most misguided musical into a cult object if not an outright hit, are a complete failure. The songwriters in charge are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the songs for last year’s La La Land as well as Broadway sensation Dear Evan Hansen. With the exception of one truly catchy number, all the songs in this movie are not only forgettable, but made up of nothing but empty pop sounds and cliched lyrics. I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish one song from the other, let alone have any kind of emotional reaction to them.
The decision to go for the mass-appeal sounds of top forty radio in the soundtrack of this movie is truly indicative of the kinds of choices to contribute to its ultimate failure. This movie wants to appeal to everyone, and ends up satisfying no one. You can’t say you’re hip one second and be unfathomably sincere and old-fashioned the next. You can’t appeal to grandma and the emo teenager at the same time. You can get a great movie by going for one or the other, but no good movie will result from playing it save. Two things that I ask myself every time I see a movie are: Why this story? And why told this way? The Greatest Showman didn’t give me a satisfying answer to either of them.