Saturday, December 23, 2017

Film Review: The Greatest Showman

Years ago I took my mother to see Mama Mia!, a movie that I couldn't stand.  But for the rest of her life my mom tried to convince me how great it was.  She fell in love with the movie's light aire of whimsy and fun.  She said, "In this world that's so filled with hatred and violence, sometimes you just need nice things."  And while I never saw eye to her about Mama Mia!, her words are echoing with me in my thoughts on The Greatest Showman.

The Greatest Showman is a highly fictionalized musical extravaganza about the life PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he tries to rise from mediocrity to create a better life for his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and their family.  Along the way he creates bazaar of oddities and novelties including little person Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrie), Lettie Lutz the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle), trapeze artists WD Wheeler (Yahya Abul-Mateen II) and his sister Anne (Zendaya).  All the while he is derided for the crassness and comercialism of his shows by critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks).  Barnum eventually tries to win the hearts of respectable by becoming partners with high society playwright and producer Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and employing European songstress Jenny Lind (Rebbecca Ferguson).

Last year, La La Land was a cynical story about sacrificing love for art, but it was wrapped in the trappings of an old-fashioned musical.  It was like a chocolate with a hollow center.  The Greatest Showman is different.  It is chocolate through and through.

I am fairly easy to please when it comes to musicals.  You have to have music that touches me emotionally and you need decent choreography to your dance numbers and I am satisfied.  During the movie I found my feet moving to the music and was surprised when I came to the realizations that there was a gigantic smile on my face. 

The music was fantastic.  I would put it on par with anything that is coming out of Broadway now.  And the singers give it such beautiful life.  The ballads are stirring, the romance is riveting, and the joy is contagious.  My wife and I were singing the songs as we left the theater and I literally went to purchase the album the next day. 

Attention must be paid to Matthieu Leopold's choreography.  The visual spectacle that he provided was such a delight.  He made the tenement rooftops seem like a magical ballroom.  A simple song about joining a business became a slight-of-hand juggling.  And an aerial circus courtship felt like flying.  It is evident that the production team understood that this movie was designed to really put on a show of visual flair.  In his directorial debut Michael Gracey deserves a lot of credit for the look and feel of the movie.  While most people in Hollywood today would only attempt something like this if it was wrapped in ten layers of irony (see La La Land), Gracey directly and unapologetically goes straight for the heartstrings.   Like Barnum himself, what the movie lacks in subtlety it makes up for with heart.

In a meta movie, the film addresses this central issue in the form of the critic Bennet.  Usually I find this trope a tad lazy as a way to inoculate a mediocre movie from criticism: "See, if you don't like this film, you are just like this snobby critic!"  But as was the case in Ratatouille, the critic provides some important reflection and insight, even when it is unwanted.  Barnum's circus is not interested in pleasing the intelligentsia.  He wants to put smiles on the faces of the common man.  He wants to be a crowd pleaser.

The movie also does a good job with not being too heavy-handed.  One of the uplifting themes of the film is finding the joy in everyone.  Often when this is done in a period-piece film, the group of outcasts stand in as thinly-veiled allegories for some particular modern oppressed group.  For example, Philip and Anne begin to form an attraction, but their interracial relationship draws the points and whispers of others.  Gracey could have hit the nail too hard on the head and used modern rhetoric in the mouths of these characters.  But rather, the movie let's the struggle be a stand in for any socially challenging relationship.  Gracey wisely focused on the common and universal alienation that all of us feel at some point.  At times we feel like a freak and on the outside.  The anthem "This is Me" is a powerful reminder that we are all God's children, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  This is a very Catholic idea.

Jackman is at his showman best in this movie.  Lightyears removed from his epic turn in Logan, his Barnum is both bold and bullying and benevolent.  He plays all of those contradictions well while at the same time infusing his own unique charisma.  Williams plays Charity with wholesome dignity, though I would have like more of her story to have been developed.  She is the sturdy center to Jackman's whirlogog.  Efron does a decent job and once again shows off his song and dance skills.  But his chemistry with Zendaya elevates his performance.  I was taken aback by Zendaya, having only really seen her work in Spider-Man: Homecoming.  In that movie, she was given a very limited range with which to work.  Here in her Anne, she was alternately brave and demure without feeling a single bit false.  When not in the spotlight, the judgmental stares of the world cause her to collapse inward, but when she showcasing her talent, she shines.  I love that she captured in her performance the odd paradox that many performers feel:  We feel more like ourselves when we get to not be like ourselves.  This same thing can be seen in Settle's show-stopping numbers and layered performance as the Bearded Lady.  Settle makes you look past her unusual feature and into her humanity.

The movie isn't perfect.  It falls in to the trap that many musicals do by letting the music do all the heavy emotional lifting, thus making the non-musical narrative development a little light.  The movie zooms through Barnum's life and expects the musical numbers to adhere the audience emotionally.  For the most part, this is the case.  But this is not a movie that is trying to be anything deeper than it is. 

That last part is not necessarily a criticism.  A few years ago I gave my Best Picture award to Captain America: The Winter Soldier over Interstellar.  Some complained that the ideas and themes and depths found in Interstellar eclipsed Winter Soldier.  I agreed.  But I whereas I thought Interstellar fumbled a bit at the end, Winter Soldier executed their vision better.  The Greatest Showman may lack the emotional and thematic depth of Les Miserables, but it isn't trying to match it.  It is simply a musical that is trying to put a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

And on that score The Greatest Showman is a great success.

Picture by Yasir72.multan

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