Under a bit of duress I went to see Greatest Showman on Saturday. The subject didn’t really interest me, and I tend not to like ahistorical treatments of historical figures, even when I don’t care about the subject. I’m tolerant of the musical as a form, but it doesn’t tend to excite me. Thus, had I not come under pressure from various interest groups, I doubt I would have seen it. The theater was packed; we had to settle on a later screening because good seats were unavailable at an earlier showtime.
And damn, I was really quite impressed. The form fits the message; you really don’t care that the PT Barnum on the screen bears no notable resemblance to the Barnum of real life, or that it clumsily trucks contemporary social issues into a nineteenth century framework. The comparisons with Hamilton are appropriate, although the latter is a far superior work. The songs aren’t terribly memorable, but they fit very effectively as components of visual spectacle. It is, in short, a fantastic spectacle about a man who trucked in fantastic spectacle, and that makes it altogether enjoyable to watch.
One of the biggest draws is something that should not have been surprising: Hugh Jackman is really a remarkable performer. He’s always been a good actor without quite being a great actor (although his performance in Logan borders on the latter), but in Greatest Showman he’s able to summon all of the talents he displayed as the 2009 Academy Awards host; singing, dancing, stage presence, etc. The distinction between actor and performer isn’t always useful, but it is helpful in categorizing individuals like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel, who are weak actors but fine performers in the appropriate part. As an aside, Dwayne Johnson is a fine performer and I think also a fine actor, if he could ever get himself into roles that allowed him to display the latter; more on this perhaps in another post.
The rest of the cast was also quite good, and Jackman left plenty of room for them to shine; Zendaya, Michelle Williams, Keala Settle (especially), and even Zac Efron in a performance that was somehow not incredibly annoying. The plot mountains (as my daughter called them) were easy to anticipate, but this resulted in a sense of comfort rather than in boredom.
It’s a rare case of being legitimately surprised at how much I liked a movie. Especially as my movie watching has trended downward, I’ve tended to rely pretty heavily on pre-screening in order to avoid paying for films that I probably wouldn’t like, but this one was really a gem.