Slight spoilers ahead sweeties.
The line for The Greatest Showman was long and we’d been burned once before with the rare phenomenon of sold out sessions. Still, we lined up, got our choc tops and got a good seat in the small theatre. We even kindly made room by moving up our row so two people could fit in. We’re good people.
We suffered through the insufferably long advertisements, preview, advertisements, preview show during which time I dropped chocolate on my dress three times. Not that I was counting or anything. Man, that Liam Neeson film looks like Garbage. The Commuter. Jeez.
FINALLY it started. Now, I’ll just mention that everyone I have spoken to about this film has flipping raved about how much they loved it, how great it was, how great Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron are, etc etc blah blah *insert emoji face with love hearts for eyes here*. And in my humble film watching experience this is frequently a sign that I am going to be disappointed. Even when Margaret and David would give something four to five stars, expectations were immediately set right up there and nothing lived up to the hype.
The Greatest Showman was no exception. Bloody hell. Can this film be any more contrived and stagey? Why do all the songs sound exactly the same and I can’t remember one of them 3 minutes after leaving the cinema? Why on earth if they’re making a musical set in the 19th century would they not use music appropriate to the time instead of these freaking awful stomping power rock, hip hop, pop shite? I know that’s trendy. Hamilton I’m looking at you. But it was awful. That thing they wrote for the character of Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind to sing was so dreadful I wondered if it was meant to be a terrible joke. I really expected the audience in the film to burst into laughter. It could not have been less subtle. It was the opposite of subtle. It was almost crude in its beltingness.
If Hugh’s performance had been any more twinkly-eyed and twinkly-toed he would have exploded into his own constellation. Settle down man. You’re not in the Boy from Oz now. Listen carefully. Sometimes it’s okay to dial down the charm. Stop it with the charisma. Overloaded. You’re in danger of tipping over the edge into Tom Cruise-territory and we know that leads nowhere good. Zac Efron – your best performance was and always will be in Hairspray. I lurved you in that. Because you got the joke. You were in on it. Here you are a little bit of the joke. You can dance and sing and everything but that revoltingly saccharine thing you had twirl around to about stars or summink with Zendaya was embarrassing. I was quietly cringing in my seat. How did you keep a straight face? The director showed admirable restraint in not having her give you the kiss of life while you were dying of smoke on the stretcher after the big fire. It would not have been out of place here. Anyhow hey ho you survived to dance the finale. Good job. Michelle Williams had little to do except wear a lovely blonde wig and support Hugh in his never-ending quest for acceptance. She did this quite gracefully even when she had to be standing in the breeze waiting for him to come and see her at the seaside in one of the concluding scenes.
I know what you might be thinking. Wendy. Stop being such a grinch. It’s just good old fashioned entertainment. Well old-fashioned certainly. Good? Nope. Instantly forgettable? Pretty much. One-dimensional? Indeed. Absolutely cardboard-cut-outty? For sure. A waste of talented cast? Definitely.
As I sat through it musing, three thoughts came to mind.
- PT Barnum = Donald Trump. I am the greatest showman. I am very stable genius and really smart. Does saying it really make it so? Was PT Barnum the originator of “alternative facts”, hoodwinking and hoaxing his public? Does someone want to trace that line back? I don’t. I’m too lazy. Is this the film musical we deserve in this time? I think it might be. Depthless. Surface. Spectacle. Guy Debord was and is still relevant.
- Seinfeld 1992. As always, Kramer said it plainly and clearly. People want to watch freaks. Because that’s as thoughtful as The Greatest Showman gets about its circus acts as well. What would have been interesting would have been less Hugh Jackman and more about the stories and lives of the (and I hesitate to use the word) “freaks” in Barnum’s act, perhaps actually addressing the issue of exploitation in some kind of nuanced way.
- In fact, there’s probably an amazing documentary or biographical film to be made about PT Barnum. This isn’t it. And maybe we can say that’s because it’s a light and fluffy musical. But musicals don’t have to be light and fluffy and I think this one is really disappointing because it chose that path.
Now I know that I’m doing that terrible thing where I’m criticising a film for not being what I wanted it to be, rather than on its own merits. And it does have some merits in a talented cast and what I imagine was a huge amount of money spent on costume, design etc etc. It’s bling from start to finish. That’s not a compliment.
Ultimately thought, I think that we, the film going public deserve better. More effort to make a film where we engage with the characters. Where they are actually engaging – where the actors are given material to work with that they can use to engage us that doesn’t entail anachronistic white teeth and really shiny hair. Yes. Even in a musical. I direct you to Strictly Ballroom and Chicago to name but two.
Come on now.
NB. The Last Jedi was still worse. Much much much worse.