“The Greatest Showman” desires to do one thing: to entertain you. If you are an unfeeling prude who visited the theater to behold Oscar bait and collect some existential values, you’ll be be terribly bored. You will also be bored if you don’t prefer musicals, Hugh Jackman not being Wolverine or similarly gritty characters, throttled choreography, or bare bones storytelling. Sadly, this alienates a lot of the target audience outright, because a movie this bombastic demands substance, right?
Showman deceives the public from the start, almost like Jackman is reprising his role in The Prestige with some sleight of hand. The lights are low; it is indistinguishable what’s going on, and if Hugh Jackman is speaking or singing, but then the spotlight intensifies, the colors and shapes present themselves, and a somewhat anachronistic rhythm rises up, the crowd claps along, and a collection of interesting folks present themselves as performers. Jackman is having himself a sincerely good time, and so is everyone on screen, it seems. They’re asking you to buy-in immediately. This is the greatest show, after all.
However, the quasi-biographical screenplay is overtly predictable, borrowing unending stereotypes to enrapture the target audience whose guard is surely down after the opening with multiple rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags subplots, snobby archetypes, near-scandals, and “Come back, daddy!” pleas from Barnum’s children. If there’s a sentimentality cow, that udder is milked dry.
At the juncture of a potential return to poverty, the newspapers scrutinize P.T. Barnum’s freak show — the local critic labels Barnum’s show a “circus”, which Barnum then ironically labels his act — yet the throngs still attend just to get a glimpse to see what all the fuss is about. Likewise, Jackman’s superhero screen persona alongside Efron’s High School Musical backdrop are a draw, and Zendaya playing the sultry trapezist love interest that will bring in those who grew up with Disney’s “Shake It Up”, yet is there any substance beyond the superficial in The Greatest Showman to legitimize a film already based on, what was regarded at the time, a deceptive display of freaks?
Fortunately, the outstanding musical score and stunning choreography help this empty plot recover its losses; and, if you’re a stage type, you know the purpose of song and dance is to communicate something, not just to wow you. The majority of the songs strive to communicate almost ad nauseum the joys of life, the relentless grand pursuit of a lifelong dream, that we should do what we want, despite criticism (personified, even, in snobbery). But these songs will kick your butt, because they’re all emotionally laced, coupled with high-paced, at times dizzying, complex dance numbers, reminiscent of some Moulin Rouge! scenes. Either you’ll be enraptured by this, or in the end you won’t care and be left puzzled by the vacuous narrative.
And that’s the whole point of The Greatest Showman. Barnum is only behind a curtain, a smoke screen away, from appearing as a con man. He is indeed, and the con of this film is that you’ll still be entertained, even if you know what to expect. Or, you’ll inhabit that stereotypical critic, and you’ll turn your nose up at this one. I suppose that’s your choice.