We’d like to think we’re not so naïve as to expect that a movie like The Greatest Showman should by definition deliver on its titular promise. But tucked tightly in the boroughs of our brain that cause us to gasp at magic shows, play the lotto, and keep one eye on the night’s sky for any sign of UFOs, there’s the holdout that a film with such a title must have something great to show for itself.
It’s with no especial pleasure that I must admit: I don’t believe I’d call any one piece of The Greatest Showman great. Not the music, which, though considerably catchy at times, never insinuates claim to a lasting impression beyond the hour-and-a-half after viewing that “Never Enough” is guaranteed to be stuck in your head. Not the acting, which veers consistently cheeseball but too frequently without the proper self-effacing oomph. And not the story, which can’t seem to decide whom we should be celebrating and for what at any given point along the way.
Thus, we’re left with a film that claims greatness, but has nothing great to show for itself. And yet, mathematics be damned, I’m hesitant to submit to the fact that The Greatest Showman isn’t, in fact, great.
Not especially impressive, inventive, or well-put-together, no. But great? Perhaps greatness can exist on its own accord. Perhaps the audacity to begin your movie with a hushed singing of line, “Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for,” commands a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps we hadn’t been waiting for such a moment, but perhaps we ought’ve.
Once that idea is lodged firmly in the hamlets of our brain that cause us to attend Christmas tree lightings, play the Hamilton lotto, and never quite give up on the mission to permeate the cat’s icy veneer, it sticks, assigning the remaining 104 minutes to follow the picture’s remarkably convincing opening platitude with the very same suggestion of grandeur. We're told that P.T. Barnum's (Hugh Jackman) determination to compensate for humble beginnings by dragging his family across the minefield of show business is a daring venture, so maybe it is! We're told that the collection of "curiosities" that make up Barnum's circus have, through their new employ, founded the very sanctuary that they've all long craved, so maybe they have! We're told that Zac Efron can do upwards of 30 shots of straight liquor in a single dance number, so maybe he can!
The Greatest Showman insists on plenty, and assumes we'll buy in to whatever it's selling—an apropos mentality considering its focal hero, though without the spiritual acumen to grapple with the ramifications of such a blind trust. Particularly at the tail end of 2017, there's something disconcerting about being asked to accept that just because a powerful and exploitative showman says he and the things he's up to are great—or to accept that just because a movie about a powerful and exploitative showman says he and it and everything in between are great—that they must be.
In this case, though, we have the luxury of just an hour and 45 minutes of our time at stake. If you can get through the lot without at least coming close, even if only once or twice, to thinking, "Maybe this is great!" then truth be told, I don't want to live in your brain.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Images: 20th Century Fox
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.