Review: The Greatest Showman

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Friends, this film is too clever for me. Not in a Mulholland Drive way where I haven’t a clue what’s going on, but in the way that it seems to have preemptively fired shots at miserable people like me by featuring a grumpy theatre reviewer who’s often mocked whenever he’s in the films, along with typical theatre/film in general. Well, the joke’s on Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks as they’ve already done my job reviewing the film for me. In a later scene in the film, the theatre reviewer sits down with PT Barnum and says: “it’s not art… if I was kinder I might have named it a celebration of humanity”. So, essentially, it has a nice message but, as a film/musical, it bored me. There’s no other way to put it. Wait, I have one: the Greatest Showman isn’t great“. A subtitle as exciting and provoking as the film itself.

The premise is that PT Barnum (the effortlessly enigmatic Hugh Jackman) gets laid off, so he starts a showbiz movement using the macabre and larger than life. The problem is there’s little plot apart from that. There’s some side plot with his family, another with Zac Efron (although granted that’s part of the message that anyone can be anyone) and something with the oddities in his circus dealing with all the hecklers. It’s alright, but not in the least way exciting or tense. Just sort of good-spirited. It’s a film that means well but fails in the actual purpose of entertaining. It’s like if The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was just Brecht standing on a stage saying “fascism is bad, let’s stop it growing” for two hours. Some kinder-spirited soul than me may find enjoyment, and more power to you if you did. However, I simply thought it was quite dull and spent large periods zoned out thinking about other things. It doesn’t take Roger Ebert to deduce that perhaps there may be a problem with this film if that’s how it makes me feel.

Also, fairly importantly, I strongly disliked most of the music. It didn’t have the jazz swing of La La Land nor the pure awe-inspiring orchestral pieces of Les Misérables. The closest thing the music can be likened to is modern pop. To be frank, I may not be the best person to judge this; if I were, I’d be a music critic. However, if I didn’t like the music in a film which is a musical, I feel that it’s an important point to note. If I’m being completely honest, this was probably the least of my problems. Nevertheless, I must admit I had hairs on my arms tingling listening to Hugh Jackman at the start, most likely due to the potential this film had in the opening minutes. To its credit, it was just after halfway through when I realised I was feeling the one thing I shouldn’t be feeling in the cinema – and no it’s no the stranger sitting next to me – it was boredom.

The core problem with the film is that it was structured worse than the Angers Bridge (yes, yes, people who live in glass houses). And I don’t mean in the irritating, self-indulgent way Aaron Sorkin has been doing for the past seven years, where a non-linear narrative replaces a typical character arc with witty dialogue and too-clever-for-you characters. Within around 45 minutes, PT Barnum has a thriving circus and I was just left wondering where the film was going to go from there. Apart from a section with PT Barnum and a Swedish singer, I felt that the plot meandered without any clear goals in sight. And while films like There Will be Blood pull this off nearly flawlessly, The Greatest Showman simply doesn’t. As a result, I was literally muttering under my breath “please be over” repeatedly by the end.

One of the things that really swayed me was the fact that this film puts a lot of faith in the hope that less dreary people like me who actually know how to have a good time at the cinema will say: “this film will tell kids, teens and adults that it’s amazing that they are who they are”. The theme of identity this film hints at is a strong one, especially with rising suicide rates among adolescents who are trying to make sense of the world they’ve been thrust into. However, instead of contemplating new and interesting ground it stayed put at “you do you better than anyone else, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of that!” Which, in all fairness, is a noble cause. Nonetheless, if it tried to explore it further or offer other explanations than “foolish fools will always be foolish, just ignore them” then I would most likely be praising the film. Instead, it chose to play it safe and remains unremarkable. Albeit, most people don’t go to the cinema wanting a life-changing experience, just something to pleasantly entertain them for two hours. Will this be the case for most people who choose to watch this film? Yes, probably.

I suppose I should say that this film is okay. I am a big Hugh Jackman fan and its message is great. In all honesty, most people won’t care about anything apart from its nice message, and popular music is popular for a reason. The performances sufficed and each character was likeable enough. Overall, high potential, poor execution.

It does seriously need to be stated that youth suicides are an ever-growing issue. And, of course, issues such as identity and not feeling that the world accepts them are leading reasons for this. As such, I will direct you to a charity called Papyrus. They focus on preventing suicide amongst adolescents, appropriate due to the themes displayed in this film. So, if I have dissuaded you from seeing the film, if either you or anyone you would go to the cinema with are fortunate enough to not have to deal with this issue, maybe spend the money you would have spent on a ticket on hopefully saving a young person’s life.