“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?”
“Do these smiles look fake?”
One of my favorite recurring SNL characters in recent years was Andy Samberg’s portrayal of Hugh Jackman: The Man with Two Sides. The joke was essentially that Jackman’s public persona was bizarrely bifurcated between his gruff performances as a muscled-out action star and his more delicate, fanciful performances as a man of the stage. 2017 might have been the year when the Two Sides of Hugh Jackman both reached their most absurd extremes. Early in the year, Jackman’s long-running lone wolf/tough guy act as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise got so somber & manly in Logan that the film could easily pass as an adaptation of a late-career Johnny Cash ballad. Jackman then followed that grizzled performance up in December with the silliest, most frothy performance in his entire musical theatre career. Jackman stars in the movie musical biopic The Greatest Showman as an eternally chipper P.T. Barnum, whom the movie posits as the inventor of modern showbusiness. The Greatest Showman is less remarkable for contrasting Logan as an exercise in pure, unembarrassed musical theatre than it is for contrasting it as a disingenuous, 100-minute-long commercial where the product being sold is joy. Just as I cried a solitary, manly tear as Logan toyed with political exploitation & deep-seated daddy issues, I also totally bought into the joyful, bullshit product Jackman peddles in The Greatest Showman. He’s a very talented salesman, no matter which one of his Two Sides is doing the talking.
Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is a little misleading. I’m not sure Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum shares much in common with the real-life showman outside a name and an affiliation with the popularization of the traveling circus. The revisionist narrative the film peddles is just as surreally artificial as its nonstop barrage of green-screened backdrops. Barnum begins the film as a working-class upstart whose belief in the American dream (and skills at lying to bank lenders) catapults his family from rags to riches as he unknowingly “invents” modern show business (think Vegas variety show). His “aha!” moment that transforms a failing wax museum packed with dusty curios to a lucrative enterprise of populist entertainment is a decision to exploit the local outcasts & physically disabled as tourist attractions, essentially inventing the profession of “circus freak.” The Greatest Showman often attempts to posit Barnum’s relationship with his disenfranchised employees as tenderly familial, but it’s much more convincing in the stretches where he profits off their labor, yet locks them out of the visibility of the high-society circles they afford him access to. The film’s moral lies somewhere in celebrating your inner (and outer) weirdness instead of desperately wanting to be accepted by the snobbish hegemony, a lesson Barnum supposedly learns several times throughout (by way of gaudy, pop-minded showtunes, of course).
There are dual romance storylines that distract from The Greatest Showman’s Let Your Freak Flag Fly messaging and overall value as a crassly populist spectacle. One involves Barnum repeatedly ignoring his wife (Michelle Williams) and children in his blind pursuit of high society respectability, something that falls a little flat if not only because his wife’s inner desires are left vague & unclear. Early on, Barnum sings passionately about his dream of creating the ultimate form of entertainment, while his wife’s only expressed desire is that he share that dream with her and allow her to tag along. A second, interracial romance among Barnum’s employees (Disney Channel vets Zack Effron & Zendaya) is a little clearer in its place in the story, though it’s ultimately just as inconsequential. Neither romance is nearly as satisfying as the time spent with Barnum’s stable of “freaks,” whose determination to be visible & respected while being themselves is the most convincing thread in the film’s overall sentimentality. I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re “Not scared to be seen” in the Oscar-nominated tune “This is Me.” The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film (the bizarre vocal dubbing of the cast’s sole little person is especially egregious), but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.
The debut film from director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman was likely a movie-by-committee proposition, very much in the tradition of blatantly commercial movie musicals like Moulin Rouge & Xanadu. It proudly wears that populism on its ruffled sleeve, though, directly calling out potential critics as “prigs & snobs” before they even have a chance to file a negative review. Barnum goes even further by calling the entire profession of entertainment criticism inherently hypocritical, as he becomes morbidly fixated on a “critic who can’t find joy in the theatre.” That insult stuck with me, not because it was especially insightful as a look into the practice of art criticism, but because it made clear exactly what product this obnoxious, crass, overlong, deeply silly advertisement was trying to sell me: joy. I greatly respect The Greatest Showman for the honesty of its populist spectacle & out-in-the-open commitment to artifice. I also believe that, besides maybe Barnum himself, there are few hucksters who could have sold its joy-product more convincingly than Jackman, even if he was outshined by the circus performers’ storyline and could only employ one of his distinct Two Sides in the task.