The Greatest Showman is not the disaster I’d expected, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a mess. Though decently cast (Jackman and Efron seem to be having a blast) and peppered with two or three great songs (the remaining ones are quite terrible), the film is a failure by almost every other measure. The screenplay shoots through time at breakneck pace, with scenes feeling more like bullet points than emotional beats. The aesthetic is all over the place, jumping from the lovely, painted backdrops reminiscent of classic studio musicals to clunky on-location shoots that suggest behind the scenes turmoil. But the most fundamental problem is its source material: the true story of a shitty man whose rotten life story is the antithesis of worthwhile family entertainment.
I don’t recommend that anyone see it this holiday season, but if you want to know what The Greatest Showman is all about, here’s a detailed rundown.
After seeing an old-timey 20th Century Fox logo—one of cinema’s most annoying (and frustratingly effective) period-movie gimmicks—we open at the circus (how appropriate) with Hugh Jackman as adult Phineas Barnum singing “The Greatest Show,” something the real Phineas Barnum never did. This marks the first moment of The Greatest Showman in which the Barnum & Bailey Circus is misrepresented as a place you went to watch people sing and dance to big dramatic numbers. In case you forgot, it wasn’t that kind of place. It was a place you went to make fun of “freaks” and watch mistreated animals from other countries perform bad tricks—all while crossing your fingers and hoping today wouldn’t be the day the building caught fire. But I digress!
As Jackman sings the mind-numbing lyrics “It’s everything you ever want, it’s everything you ever need, and it’s here right in front of you, this is where you wanna be” (it is none of those things), he suddenly dissolves into young Barnum, and the film enters an extended flashback in which we learn Phineas grew up as the sad, lonely son of a poor tailor in New York City who was treated like shit by his wealthy clients, one of whom had a daughter, Charity, whom he developed a crush on as a young boy because heterosexuality is apparently as easy as A+B=C. The two children enter an abandoned and overgrown mansion to sing the song “A Million Dreams,” which—like most songs by the duo Pesek and Paul—has a serviceable, sometimes beautiful melody, that is rendered almost unlistenable due to dimwitted lyrics that would make a 5th grader note its embarrassing construction and reading level. When his father dies suddenly, Phineas is left homeless and hungry until a freak (I will use that word only because the movie insists that I do) hands Phineas an apple. This is important.
Annnnnnnnnnd midway through the song they’re suddenly adults. Charity is now played by Michelle Williams, yet another role in which she plays the wife who remains loyal and supportive despite all of her husband’s toxic bullshit.
“Fine! Marry my pretty daughter, you gutter trash!” Charity’s father says, in effect. “But she’ll be back once she realizes you’ll never be rich and successful and part of New York Society!” This, my friends, is the extent of this fictional Barnum’s motivations. Be rich! Be respected by other rich people! That’s all! How weird. During the latter, adult half of “Million Dreams,” the Barnums dance on the roof of their dilapidated Manhattan apartment as all 12 (or more) of their bedsheets dry on the clothesline, at which point you will find yourself asking, “How many beds does this struggling family have?!” We then meet their two daughters, one of whom wishes to be a ballet dancer (they can’t afford it, unfortunately) while the other merely checks a character box, and in a moment of familial bliss, Charity tells Phineas, “I don’t mind not having much money. Let’s just be a happy family.”
“Never!” Phineas replies. “I’m going to buy a huge building on the other side of town and start a museum filled with weird shit.” The bank loans him money for the building because he’s a con artist, but no one visits! Cue a lightbulb moment. Phineas remembers that kind person who gave him an apple once and thinks, “I’m gonna fill my circus with freaks.”
In most heist movies, there’s a charming first act montage in which the ringleader gets the gang together. That happens here, only it’s a two-bit grifter going around town offering jobs to freaks whose backstories are never ever detailed. Bearded lady? Check. Short dude? Check. Man covered in tattoos? Why not. Zendaya? Come on down. Once the freaks—who trust Phineas for reasons never explained—are assembled, they sing the song “Come Alive,” which sounds like an inspirational song Gloria Estefan recorded for an Oscar bait-y movie from 1996. Thanks to the freaks, whom I think aren’t paid and live inside the circus building, Barnum becomes very rich very quickly and suddenly buys the mansion he and Charity roamed through as children. He also enrolls his favorite daughter in a ballet class. “There’s a lot of money in the freak business,” Phineas never says but definitely implies.
But despite their sudden wealth, no one respects the Barnums! (Again, this is his singular goal.) So what does he do? He asks Phillip Carlyle, a successful playwright and son of Manhattan socialites, to legitimize his business by doing ???????? After singing and dancing to “The Other Side,” a well-choreographed moment during which Phineas and Phillip don’t kiss but definitely should have, Carlyle agrees and takes a 10% cut. Within seconds, he falls in love with Zendaya and takes Phineas and the freaks to meet Queen Victoria in London in order to, uh, make New Yorkers respect them? Yes, it happens that quickly, because The Greatest Showman has no sense of time, pacing, or geographical distance. After meeting with Queen Victoria, who loves the freaks, Phineas and Phillip meet Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a famous singer known as the Swedish Nightingale. They ask her to perform in New York in order to class up his entertainment empire, and she agrees because, again, Phineas is a two-bit grifter.
Suddenly we’re back in New York City, and Jenny Lind performs the film’s best song, “Never Enough,” and receives a standing ovation. Meanwhile, Zac Efron wants to hold Zendaya’s hand in public, but his parents don’t approve of his seeing a black woman, so he resists the urge. What an asshole! Zendaya has nearly had it up to here with his childish, gotta-please-my-parents bullshit. At the glamorous afterparty, Phineas toasts Jenny to a room of socialites who finally sort of maybe think he’s not trash after all. So when the freaks try to barge in and drink champagne with everyone, he gets nervous and tells them to skedaddle. They belong in coach, not first class! Annnnnd here comes “This Is Me,” a horrendous song that, despite having been written by an algorithm, is a nice vocal showcase for Tony nominee Keala Settle (the bearded woman).
But back to Jenny Lind. Phineas decides to take her on tour around the country, much to Phillip and Charity’s protestations, and leaves Philip behind to manage the freaks. But the one he’s most interested in managing ~~~if you know what I mean~~~ is still pissed at him for being such a baby in front of his racist parents. It is here that they sing “Rewrite the Stars,” the second best song in the film and the most thrilling bit of choreography. I mean, honestly, this scene is great. They swing on ropes! They ride on hoops! They defy gravity! When this is uploaded to YouTube, watch it and “Never Enough” and nothing else from the film.
It’s here that The Greatest Showman suddenly realizes it’s running out of time, because the rest of the story plays out like a rapid-fire list of bullets no one agreed to expand. Charity is sad (“Tightrope”)! Jenny wants to fuck Phineas but he doesn’t reciprocate so she quits (“Never Enough (Reprise)”)! The circus burns down because anti-freak protesters set that shit ablaze and Phineas runs out of money and gives up on the circus! (“Burn That Shit Down (Freak Fire)”) (Just kidding.)
But the next bit of light-speed plot progression is my personal favorite. When a newspaper prints a photo of Phineas and Jenny kissing, Charity dumps him and runs back to daddy, just like daddy suspected. While this would take, oh, 10-30 pages to resolve itself in a typical screenplay, The Greatest Showman takes care of business in, like, four lines of dialogue. Phineas runs to his father-in-law’s house, where he is read to filth before being told that Charity is at the beach. Suddenly Phineas is at the beach, and finds Charity staring at a sunset. (I like imagining that every Michelle Williams character has an unseen scene in which her character—frustrated by her shitty husband—runs off to the beach to stare at the sunset.) They reconcile in under 15 seconds because this movie has stopped giving a shit.
But what about the freaks?!!?!?!! This is a question I asked myself more than once during The Greatest Showman. Though it purports to be about a man who helped freaks feel less like outsiders, it treats the freaks like, well, freaks. We never learn more about them, nor are they given an earnest shot at proclaiming their frustrations to the audience. (“This Is Me” should be an angry song, not an inspirational one.) But despite their awful treatment by Phineas, they find him at a bar and let him know they don’t want him to give up on his dream by singing “From Now On,” which sounds like the Theatre Kidz Bop version of a worse-than-average Mumford and Sons single. Why? Because the movie is rated PG and needs a happy ending.
Suddenly, everyone’s visiting the rubble of the burned circus, and a mean twerp of a theater critic (oh god, how have I not mentioned him until now) tells Phineas that his show was never for critics, it was for audiences. Aw! he’s inspired to start the circus back up again, but without money deems it an impossible dream. But wait! Phillip took a 10% cut from the very beginning and never spent any of it! So, after a well-received line about the prices of Manhattan real estate, they decide to perform under TENTS not in BUILDINGS in order to save money. (If you’re wondering what happened to Jenny Lind, I don’t know what to tell you. Guess she died.)
While performing “The Greatest Show” once again, Phineas literally passes the baton to Phillip and says he has some business to attend to. Because this is Manhattan before Uber, he hops on an elephant and rides it to the Met to meet up with his family. Yes, The Greatest Showman ends with Hugh Jackman riding an elephant down Park Avenue in the snow.
The screen fades to black and we see the quote: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” —P.T. Barnum.