The Long View: The Greatest Showman

Hannah Long, News Editor •

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

The above, a possibly apocryphal quotation from P.T. Barnum, pretty much summarizes my gullibility when it comes to going to see Hugh Jackman movies.
I would watch Jackman in almost anything, honestly, which is largely why I went to see The Greatest Showman, a film which from the first trailer seemed calculated to annoy me.

Cheesy, overproduced music spouting individualistic “you can do anything!” platitudes and shoehorning modern tunes into history? Such weirdness worked for Hamilton, but this didn’t seem like a similarly ambitious product.
As it is, my fears were somewhat unwarranted. The music is glossy and overproduced, but it’s good music.

The problem is that that sheen of unreality, coupled with disjointed pacing and a constant mood of exuberant emotionalism (not every song is a climactical emotional moment, guys) means the story’s actual emotions have very little weight.

The film tries to set up a conflict between unambitious populist entertainment and snobbish elitist art but it fails to seriously engage the difference between the two.

On the one hand, we’re meant to love Barnum’s scruffy band of circus performers, but when opera singer Jenny Lind sings, there’s a definite sense that this is something finer (it’s still a pop ballad, as the film doesn’t trust its audience enough to give them real opera).

If the film had been more thoughtful, it might have been able to bridge the divide between populism and elitism, or at least to comment on both approaches’ pros and cons, on simplicity versus sophistication, disrespectable innovation versus traditional artistry. Instead, it’s more interested in mindless entertainment. Critics are the bad guys, it’s as simple as that.

To be fair, the real P.T. Barnum would probably be proud.

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