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

The Greatest Showman The Greatest Showman

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

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Eleanor Ringel

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Joseph February 15, 2018 1:30 pm

    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
    1. Tara Atkins April 22, 2018 11:36 am

      HIS review is HIS opinion. If you didnt AGREE with how he views the REAL P.T.Barnum- why even bother reading, and then u just HAD to comment .. Report

      Reply
  2. Amerikan February 18, 2018 7:54 pm

    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. Johnny Schaefer February 18, 2018 10:34 pm

    I love how the fans proved you utterly wrong. Some people eat a delicious hot fudge sundae and whine and cry that it’s not steak.Report

    Reply
  4. Michael Edwards February 28, 2018 11:27 am

    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
  5. Justin Williams March 12, 2018 9:53 am

    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

    Reply
  6. Trap March 12, 2018 1:25 pm

    The greatest showman was one the best movies that I’ve ever seen and a lot of people would agree with me.Report

    Reply
  7. Sav March 12, 2018 11:57 pm

    I had high hopes with this movie since I heard the songs first and loved them. But I definitely agree with this review. What a letdown.Report

    Reply
    1. . May 9, 2018 11:08 pm

      Incorrect.Report

      Reply
  8. sarah edwards March 13, 2018 9:17 pm

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

    Reply
  9. Mike March 14, 2018 8:10 pm

    A theater critic who can’t find joy in the theater…

    Any movie that makes you feel better just by watching it is good in my book:)Report

    Reply
  10. David D March 23, 2018 10:18 pm

    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

    Reply
    1. . May 9, 2018 11:09 pm

      You forgot to say that all your “Opinions” are wrong.Report

      Reply
  11. Jim Mock April 14, 2018 11:27 pm

    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
    1. Michael May 1, 2018 6:27 pm

      Out of curiosity, what did you find bland?Report

      Reply
  12. Michael May 1, 2018 6:26 pm

    “A showy, confused, big hunk of nothing.” The only thing that confuses me is whether you’re talking about the movie, or your review. It’s obvious that you missed the point of the movie. It’s meant to entertain, which it did. Sure, we could tell the real story of a man with questionable morals, and a not so questionable disregard for some of the people he exploited. That sounds like a great movie. We could just as easily Google that ourselves and realize that we don’t really want to know some of the details.

    This is an empowering movie, and it fits well with a more modern mindset and the music was great. I have to wonder, as an expansion on Barnum’s observation of the theater critic in the movie, do movie critics actually like movies? Or is it just an opportunity to sound overly intellectual and keep getting a paycheck for disagreeing with audiences?Report

    Reply
  13. Mason Epeneter (@MasonEpeneter) June 25, 2018 2:52 am

    “too eager to please” This quote is complete idiocy to Barnum’s beliefs
    “The noblest art is that of making others happy” – P.T. Barnum
    That should prove to you how wrong your review isReport

    Reply
  14. John G Hughes July 2, 2018 7:59 pm

    A million thanks, David, concerning the music. I liked the film more than you did, but not the contemporary music. Your comment about the “tired chord progressions” has been scientifically proven by a study done in Singapore a few years ago. I admit that I am probably spoiled by being brought up by Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe. Now those scores were unforgettable!!!Report

    Reply
  15. Ellie July 9, 2018 11:56 am

    I know I do!Report

    Reply
  16. Jon Sanoy August 3, 2018 2:08 am

    Like the Herald guy in the movie.Report

    Reply

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