Three years ago, New York Times pop music critics Jon Caramanica and Ben Ratliff had an interesting conversation about the difficulty of reviewing an album by Chris Brown, the hip-hop artist arrested in 2009 for assaulting ex-girlfriend Rihanna. How do you review an album by a known creep? Do you view the album on its own terms or do you take into account what’s known about the artist?
The conversation seems quaint in the era of #MeToo, when accused stars like Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K, and Ed Westwick are getting unceremoniously dropped from projects they spearheaded. For decades, however, the cultural milieu had encouraged either turning a blind eye to misconduct or proposed bracketing critiques of the personal life from critiques of the professional life. Today’s cultural dialogue finds itself skeptical of the default narrative of white man as well-intended guy who may have some flaws but is ultimately a benevolent hero. Today’s dialogue craves underrepresented voices.
That’s why, despite it’s empowering theme song, diverse cast, and strong vocal lead in Hugh Jackman, it’s impossible to separate The Greatest Showman from what we know of P.T. Barnum the man. But let’s jump back to our current time, for a moment. Some say that Steve Bannon is not a political genius but rather an opportunist, and ladies and gentleman, that must make P.T. Barnum the O.G. opportunist—what else do you call it when a businessman gathers people with disabilities and physical oddities, throws them all together under one tent, and charges admission for on-goers to gawk? But ignoring the cultural climate, The Greatest Showman director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon ask us to consider another era, a time when well-shaven white men were by default given the benefit of the doubt. In a debate over genius vs. opportunist, the script unabashedly takes the genius angle, and hopes you won’t think too hard about that choice.
It’s important to know that the original Barnum circus, as depicted in the film, is a far cry from modern-day circuses, with clowns and pyrotechnics and trapeze artists. They were called “freak shows” because they showcased people that the larger society saw as, well, “freaks”. In the film, Barnum is positioned as a white savior, the man who comes in and gives this black woman with a beard and dwarf in a Napoleon uniform their chance to be seen. Whether you think P.T. Barnum as opportunist or genius is the key to whether or not you’ll be able to stomach this musical.
So now that we’ve identified the elephant in movie theater, we can talk about the film. The Greatest Showman surely hopes to piggyback on the reemergence of the musical as major blockbuster, as initiated by La La Land, but its take is a little different. Gracey’s New York of 1871 is not even attempting to carve any stakes into reality, feeling as colorful and sanguine as a production of The Nutcracker. Even Barnum’s impoverished apartment in the film’s first act turns into a wonderland, the set for a lovely duet between Jackman and wife Charity (Michelle Williams), with a lamp projecting magical shadows across pastel-colored sheets hanging on laundry day. Williams’ acting chops are completely wasted in a film where her part essentially demands that she smiles as purely as Belle strolling through town in Beauty and the Beast.
But there needs to be credit where credit is due: The Greatest Showman gets an A+ for production value. Whereas La La Land was critiqued for less-than-stellar vocal leads and Les Miserables only remains memorable for the abysmal performance of Russel Crowe, Hugh Jackman has the chops—and so does the entire cast which includes Zac Efron as Phillip Carlyle, Zendaya as Efron’s love interest, and Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz, a woman with a big beard and an even bigger vocal prowess.
Besides Settle’s theme song — an empowering anthem for the “other” person with a chorus that declares I may be different but that’s what makes me beautiful — the other standout moment is the duet between Jackman and Efron in a bar, when P.T. Barnum is trying to convince New York socialite Phillip Carlyle to take a chance on investing in his unlikely crew. The two performers are the film’s best vocalists, but more importantly, they can nail the demanding rhythm of “The Other Side”, which creates the only true foot-tapping sequence of the film.
Where The Greatest Showman beats La La Land in casting and production quality, it falters in the far more important arena for a feel-good story: capturing a sense of real humanity. La La Land caught the tail-end of the last big cultural talking point before the #MeToo era: income inequality. It grappled with questions of young people being brought up by Disney movies that taught the world was yours for the taking but who graduated into a Recession and an internet-age when piracy makes getting paid for artistic work harder than ever. Which paradigm were Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s characters supposed to follow: Follow your dreams? Or stop being entitled millennials and get a job? The film’s conclusion—where the duo must choose between love and career—would never happen in a 20th-century musical where everything gets a tidy, happy ending. But you have to give La La Land credit: When people weren’t dancing on cars, the film tried to engage with society as it is today.
The Greatest Showman , however, has no heart. You may forgive this in the opening montage, where P.T. and Charity go from mischievous kids to still just as playful adults in a matter minutes, but we never get to know any character as more than just an archetype throughout the entire movie. P.T. is positioned as a passionate guy who won’t let setbacks get him down—but we don’t explore his motivations for making money off these societal outcasts. Is he a good guy who can see everyone as equals and wants to give them a voice, or is he just trying to make a buck? Ignoring the question makes the whole production feel manipulative. Phillip Carlyle (Efron) and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) fall in love at first sight, despite the era’s taboos of a white Upper East Side man dating a black woman, but no real effort is put into this story line either. During one scene, Carlyle abruptly drops Wheeler’s hand, pretending he’s not with her, and in the next, he suddenly has the nerve to tell off his racist parents. There’s no explanation of his personal growth—like with P.T. Barnum, we’re just supposed to fall back on the template of the white guy who is ultimately good, no questions asked.
There also may be one more elephant in the room (literally): Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus finally went under in 2017, not because kids these days spend all their time online, but in large part due to brand imaging issues with the growing criticism of the Greatest Show’s treatment of animals. This entire critique is avoided in the film, and the use of animals in The Greatest Showman is like a picture from another time: Barnum meets his wife and kids for a Broadway show, striding down the streets of New York atop an elephant. It’s a magical scene—a scene that hopes you’ll forget how that elephant will be treated once the lights go down.
What do you do with a film that’s everything Hollywood has to offer in terms of technical finesse but is just so overtly and willingly tone deaf? It’s up to you. With all the glitz and glamor, it’s easy to enjoy the ride—so long as you don’t catch a whiff of the manure piling up behind the tent.