‘The Greatest Showman’ – Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum almost makes something out of nothing

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

There are those of us who will go see Hugh Jackman in anything. And I mean, anything. 

Alas, “The Greatest Showman,” starring Jackman as 19th-century impresario, P. T. Barnum, is more like nothing. A showy, confused, big hunk of nothing.

Greatest Showman

Poster for ‘The Greatest Showman’

Barnum, who coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” is a ripe subject for a movie. Part scoundrel, part master of the razzle-dazzle, he was as well known for his scams (an elderly African-American woman he passed off as George Washington’s 160-year-old nurse) as he was for his assortment of born-this-way freaks (most famously, perhaps, the celebrated midget, General Tom Thumb, who counted Queen Victoria among his admirers).

Barnum’s stock-in-trade was humbug — some of it harmless, some of it not — all of it consumed with great enthusiasm by audiences who flocked to his museum of “curiosities” in New York and to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.

If Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy, wasn’t your style, maybe the Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, was. A hirsute guy with a rare disease or a world-class opera singer — as long as people paid to see them, it was all pretty much the same to Barnum. As he says to Tom Thumb, people are going to stare at him regardless; why not get paid for it?

For some reason, “The Greatest Showman” showcases Barnum as a star-spangled dreamer, with sawdust and tinsel in his blood and a knack for entertainment in his sequined soul.

The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman

The movie begins with his impoverished childhood where, despite their differences in social status, he and rich-girl Charity fall in love. Over her family’s huffy objections, they marry and he promises her a fancy life in a fancy mansion.  Which, in due time, he delivers.

Of course, she (now Michelle Williams, totally wasted) loves him for himself. And, yes, for his dreams and his big heart and open mind (he’s as tolerant of people of color as he is of bearded ladies). And on and on and on and on and on and on and….

Jackman is so talented, so endlessly charming, he almost makes the movie work. Plus, he looks fabulous in a top hat and cut-away coat. But at heart,  “The Greatest Showman” is a familiar bit of hokum, sanitized and trite, too eager to please and too unchallenging to hold our attention.

“I want to create a place where people can see things they’ve never seen before,” Barnum insists. Unfortunately, you won’t find that here.

The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

11 replies
  1. Joseph says:

    It is a movie filled with heart and offering the uplifting and rare message that although we are all bruised we are all brave as well and each of us has the ability to triumph in our every day lives. I found it, along with the euphoric and brilliant music, a celebration of life and of the best within each of us.
    Unfortunately, your negative and subjective review says more about you than it does the movie.Report

    Reply
  2. Amerikan says:

    And people are paid to be critics!? I am glad I pay little attention to the “professional critics” before I see a movie. The best critics are my friends. Joseph, your last sentence said it all, ‘Unfortunately, your negative and subjective review says more about you than it does about the movie.’ This movie gets five stars!!Report

    Reply
  3. Michael Edwards says:

    This review was a showy big hunk of nothing. For god’s sake its a movie that is fanciful and inspires, just like the circus itself. Which makes it quite possible one of the truest movie of all time regardless if it is historically accurate or not.Report

    Reply
  4. Justin Williams says:

    Lol, someone didn’t get laid recently. How refreshing to see something which lifts the spirits in a way, normally only Disney can achieve. Great music. I take reviews by critics with a massive pinch of salt. Gets my vote and it seems the public like it a whole lot more than the critics. As to whether it’s true or not, I couldn’t care less. It was an entertaining watch and my 11 year old (mega bouncy non stop) son, sat still for the whole film!Report

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  5. sarah edwards says:

    Totally agree with you Eleanor – vanilla pap, nothing to challenge and excite… overtones of Moulin Rouge but unfortunately a sanitised bland mess.Report

    Reply
  6. David D says:

    You missed out the fact that the songs are entirely forgettable, replaceable clichés which apart from one or two exceptions would be better served on a (sub par) pop album than a musical as none of them have anything of any significance to say other than forced emotions about being yourself
    having fun and daring to dream. Subjects that have been handled far better many times in previous works. Only one song forwards the ‘plot’. The opera singer doesn’t sing opera, in fact she doesn’t sing at all thanks to a session vocalist handling her singing for her, and yet the film stops altogether for a 4 minute ‘performance’ with very little going on as she stands and convincingly lip-syncs. Musicals generally have songs to forward the story whereas this just feels like watching an overproduced pop concert from 2017 set in a past era. Even the High School Musical series wipes the floor with this film. If you like this sort of thing then I’m happy for you, but I would hardly call this high quality entertainment. I have to side with the critics on this one. I found myself wanting to skip through it even on the first viewing. The songs are so repetitive, reusing the same tired chord progressions over and over that I found myself rolling my eyes. I was unable to suspend disbelief when a child P. T Barnham suddenly changes into a late 40s man asking for a father’s blessing to be with his daughter. When the actor playing the father is only a few years older than Jackman it totally threw the whole illusion. This film took no risks with any characters either. There are very few if any redeeming factors to this film for me. 1 star out of 5Report

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  7. Jim Mock says:

    This critic sums up my thoughts. I’m glad I just rented it. There’s some good actors here, but unfortunately they showed up for a bland movie.Report

    Reply

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