Saturday, December 23, 2017

MOVIE REVIEW/The Greatest Showman
A Good Movie -- But A Greatest Disservice

Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, with his troupe of performers in Michael Gracey's "The Greatest Showman". 

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, December 23, 2017

"The Greatest Showman" glories in zeal, triumph and salutes performance, success and the diversity of entertainers.  From the opening frame I was filled with appreciation at this tidy, invigorating musical about showbusiness.  Michael Gracey's sparkling feature film directing debut is exuberant, moving, colorful and musically sublime. 

Mr. Gracey's film is the story of Phineas T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), better known as P.T. Barnum, the master manipulator, publicity machine and promoter of the grandiose, exaggerated and extreme.  Mr. Barnum was all about publicity, audience, attention and admiration yet was also an unsavory figure at best.  Mr. Jackman is pure service with a smile though his Barnum is never far from his fears or failure, no matter how successful his circus act is.  Show business lies on a knife's edge of success and failure, and fear is what ties those two together. 

"Greatest Showman" is also about dedication, sacrifice and the risks sacrifice entails.  When Barnum heads off on tour with one of his singing acts Anna Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) he estranges Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams) and their children.  In the film's nod to class gulfs Charity's monied father castigates and belittles Barnum for his roots in poverty for all the years he's tried to win Charity's heart.  Showbusiness means having to take risks, and Barnum's dance on a tightrope from a hardscrabble upbringing -- a dance Mr. Gracey moves past at warp speed -- to success based on others' hardships, a mirror of Barnum's life -- is a dance fraught with tension, ups and downs. 

The film, which has melancholic moments, operates as a tragicomedy of the fine line between acceptance, rejection and gulf between rich and poor.  On a visit to Buckingham Palace the fierce glares Mr. Barnum's troupe receive speak volumes.  As he seeks money from bankers to keep his dream show stage fueled Barnum is constantly met with "no" (as filmmakers are in Hollywood, so what's new?) 

"Greatest Showman" adroitly displays the poverty of the heart, the poverty of the rich and the poverty of love.  A theater critic of Barnum's cheekily exemplifies the latter.  But Barnum and the critic need each other, something the film makes no bones about.  Opposites attract, whether in negative or positive ways, and "Greatest Showman" demonstrates that each needs the other in order to survive and succeed.  Call it perversity, call it profiteering but certainly call it reality.

Fear arguably informs every choice Barnum makes and every rejection the powerful make in showbusiness.  The vitriolic, hateful mobs of New Yorkers who despise Barnum's show of the different and daring exert their fears too, in dangerous ways.  They are a show unto themselves, not unlike the mobs at Donald's political rallies in 2016, like those who sucker-punched or abused other attendees.  Donald and P.T. Barnum are the same person, except one of them (Barnum) performed in blackface, a fact Mr. Gracey's movie completely and outrageously ignores.  Barnum was an unvarnished racist, and "Greatest Showman" does its audience the greatest disservice by omitting this information.  In other areas of the film race is manifested mostly subtly: a rich white male producer of plays (Zac Efron) pretends he isn't romantically interested in a Black female performer (Zendaya) in order to keep up appearances for his racist family.

I suspect Barnum's contradictions made him far less admirable than "Greatest Showman" (hence the ironic title) portrays him.  P.T. Barnum was a brutal person -- here he's cinematically airbrushed.  We spot glimpses of pain in Mr. Jackman's bravura turn, and the Australian's stage background gives some shape to Barnum, a figure of tragedy, hate, rebirth and a touch of opportunism.  The game of showbiz however, is a game of appetites, some of which are destructive.  I was disappointed Mr. Gracey didn't deal with the racist aspects of Barnum, who exploited and violated Black performers in a manner akin to enslavement.  It was a missed opportunity for the director to create a reality that would have heightened the dimensions of the film.  Barnum's racism and violence are important and indispensable ingredients that are far too critical and undisputed to ignore, unless the motive of Mr. Gracey's film is to purely entertain and mislead, a most dangerous aspect of "dramatic" or "artistic license".

With what is on the screen "The Greatest Showman" meticulously show us the beauty and possibility of a magical ride.  When the performers, all of whom are happiest on stage -- get to shine, all is right with the world.  The world's adorers and haters (the audience) are held hostage in the palm of the performers' hands.  Mr. Gracey's own illusions about Barnum's behavior are as poisonous and powerful as the elements of manipulation and deception depicted in the film.

Also with: Paul Sparks, Keala Settle, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Natasha Liu-Bordizzo.

"The Greatest Showman" is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic elements including a brawl.  The film's running time is one hour and 56 minutes.

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