I thought it was safe to say that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was the most divisive film of 2017 for critics and audience members. However, there is another that gives “The Last Jedi” a run for its money. “The Greatest Showman” has a 54 percent from critics on RottenTomatoes, but its audience score is a 90 percent. It’s safe to say that this is yet another film that critics and audiences are not seeing eye to eye on.
Considering the disparity in scores and the constant urging by people around to see this movie, I finally went to the theater to see this new musical. And I’m sorry audiences who loved it, but I’m inclined to agree with the critics.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there is plenty to like about this film. Hugh Jackman is a virtuoso and elevates some of the schmaltzy drama with his genuine acting skills. There are moments early in the film that are exceptionally creative and well executed. Zendaya gives a subdued but captivating performance. And some of the tunes will stay with you after the credits roll.
Unfortunately, I didn’t care for the screenplay. There are many intriguing themes presented in the film’s script, but the integration of those themes into the script is sloppy. Additionally, I think for every great performance there’s one that is distracting. Jackman has a natural presence in the film, but Zac Efron sticks out like a heavily made-up sore thumb. Michelle Williams gives a passable performance, but her character is considerably underwritten so she didn’t have the opportunity to go further with the part.
Ultimately, the issues in this film lie in the screenplay written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. The film is also hurt by P.T. Barnum’s actual story, a story that can’t be escaped. If you walk into “The Greatest Showman” and accept the film as a very loose adaptation of Barnum’s life then you’ll have a more enjoyable time. The movie is basically fiction. There are certainly elements of the film that are based on reality, but many of the dramatic links are fabricated. For instance, Efron and Zendaya’s characters are not real. They are present only to push the theme of acceptance regardless of race or class.
That being said, fiction or non-fiction, the screenplay is poorly written and leaps too sporadically between characters’ story arcs. By inserting the fictional character Phillip Carlyle, played by Efron, into the film, the spotlight is forcefully taken away from Jackman. This change in focus is distracting and breaks the dramatic narrative thread that was unraveling from the film’s opening moments.
It’s safe to say that Barnum is a man who is eaten alive by ambition. He comes up with the idea to put together a show with unusual people with odd afflictions, and he’s portrayed in these moments as sympathetic to their mistreatment in society. However, some have argued that Barnum was exploitative of these individuals. Regardless, he puts on a show.
Later he is enticed to put on a very different show in the form of a powerhouse opera singer named Jenny Lind. The inclusion of this story is a standout in the script because Barnum is seen dismissing his sideshow performers and demanding that they not join him at a fancy reception to celebrate Barnum’s new talent.
It’s a well-executed moment, but it’s ruined later in the film when these ostracized people quickly come back to Barnum’s side when his latest business deals have failed. A dramatic comeuppance that would have been interesting would be seeing the “freaks” dismiss Barnum. Therefore, he would need to beg, perhaps through a ballad, for their forgiveness. Instead, they comfort him, and he wakes up from his brief moment of depression and all is neatly tied up in a bow. It’s a film of convenience and one that doesn’t want to take risks.
I understand that this was intended for families and even children, but I wish it had a bit more bite especially when exploring important concepts such as racism, ostracism and even passionate love.
“The Greatest Showman” is a competent film and there is plenty to applaud in it, but the narrative structure is most important to a film’s success, and it’s not nearly as impressive as a giant man, a dog-faced boy, or a bearded lady.