My observations as made on social media throughout this year’s remarkable, warm, muted, inclusive affair.
With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, composers of La La Land and the recent Christmas Story Live!, the film will never be accused of being high-art, but then that is not what Barnum‘s stock-in-trade was either. With our present distaste for circuses and with the revisionist history that sees Barnum as less of an inclusive and big-hearted entrepreneur and more of an unethical and selfish opportunist, viewers are best-served to check those preconceptions at the door and approach the film as if Barnum is a mythological figure from American folklore, a la Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.Barnum (Jackman) chides a theatre critic who has no use for the ringmaster’s brand of populist entertainment, “A theatre critic who can’t find joy in the theatre. Now, who’s a fraud?” It seems to be as much a definition of Barnum’s artistic philosophy as a caution to Twitter trolls in the audience ready to hate on The Greatest Showman‘s gee willkers approach to American cultural history.
Helmed by first-time director Michael Gracey (who had a reported assist from Logan‘s James Mangold) and with a screenplay written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast), the film offers a cursory look at the significant and recognizable moments in Barnum’s life, like story beats in an oft-told fable … with a heaping helping of Horatio Alger-ism: we Americans can be whoever and whatever we want to be, regardless how checkered our pasts (hell, just look at the White House and Capitol Hill).
This is not a detailed, cynical, warts-and-all biopic but rather a heartfelt and inspirational allegory (bordering on the twinkling best of Hallmark Hall-of-Fame‘s legendary output) that material success cannot substitute for authentic love. And that is just fine.Hugh Jackman is totally in his element, throwback as he is to a Hollywood of another era where corny was not only king but was embraced and celebrated by the masses. It is a refreshingly positive (albeit whitewashed) take on a legendary American captain of industry – the kind of story-telling that was prevalent in 1950s Tinseltown technicolor fantasias … or that librarians used to read aloud to us third-graders in our elementary school reading circles. However, The Greatest Showman is smart enough to supercharge the proceedings with a percussive, propulsive, almost martial, contemporary pop score to hook a generation of audiences weaned on High School Musical or Glee.
This simplistic approach with its anachronistic score is surprisingly effective, at times both insidiously engaging and pleasantly disarming. Highlights include rousing opener “The Greatest Show,” no-business-like-show-business anthem “Come Alive,” bromantic stomp-duet “The Other Side,” swoony/lurchy ballad “Rewrite the Stars,” and rafter-rattling curtain call “From Now On.”The bones of the story are not dissimilar to those of Barnum!, the 1980 Cy Coleman Broadway stage musical starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close, but the proceedings couldn’t be more fresh or modern. Disney Channel alumni Zendaya and Zac Efron deliver lovely paper doll turns in this 21st century panto-play. Michelle Williams is luminous, simultaneously distant and winsome – arm candy with an iron will – as Barnum‘s stoic wife Charity. The supporting cast is rounded out with a strong team of stage alumni who relish every moment of this big-screen cartoon. Kealla Settle as Lettie Lutz, the “bearded lady,” is one to watch. Her mid-movie barnstormer “This is Me” brings down the house with a can-you-hear-the-people-sing intensity that should leave you exhausted and enraged and damned “woke” … if you have any heart at all.
The filmmakers (tom) thumb their noses at depth, knowing that the best celebration of Barnum’s life as a huckster purveyor of humbug would be to deliver free-wheeling holiday escapism that energizes and enthralls. Yet, embedded within the cotton candy fluff is a timely and haunting message of acceptance and understanding and compassion.
Sociopolitically, the film does continue the troubling trope of “beautiful white dude as multiculti savior.” However, it marries that message to a final act comeuppance for Barnum. Per the film, Barnum’s fatal flaw is always looking past the talent in his midst to see who else might be coming through the door, breaking the most important of hearts in his unyielding aspiration for validation from an American elite that continually rejects his kind. After a final act tragedy, Barnum’s family of freaks confronts him with this brutal truth, licking their wounds, rallying the troupe, and reminding us all that the greatest show exists with those who’ve been loyal to us all along.
It’s all quite obvious and Hollywood-shallow self-serving, but I admit I cried and cheered and stomped my feet. Sometimes the corniest message – the most heartfelt one – is the one we all need to hear again and again. As Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (in an ethereal if underdeveloped portrayal by Rebecca Ferguson) warns Barnum, “When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” Family is what you make it, true success begins at home, and there is a place at the table for us all. Amen. #thisisme
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.
I was always a DC over Marvel fan. To me, Superman and his pals have richer history and greater visual interest, but, more often than not, DC’s flicks (Man of Steel, Green Lantern – blech.) are self-serious, ponderous, deadly dull (narratively and chromatically) while Marvel zips past on a celluloid sleigh made of gumdrops and cheekiness (Captain America, Thor).
Yes, Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films are great and artistic and DEEP! but they ain’t much fun, and I don’t see myself re-watching any of them when I’m bored on a Saturday afternoon. Iron Man or The Avengers on the other hand …
Please don’t mistake this as saying Marvel has no depth. They do – see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They just don’t think a message has to be stultifying to be taken seriously. And, yes, they’ve had their share of missteps – notably Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2. I may have been the only person who enjoyed Edward Norton’s Incredible Hulk as well.
My apologies for the by-way into the always-inconsequential “DC vs. Marvel” debate, about which only we fanboy nerds ever seem to care, but I was reminded yet again this afternoon of just how well Marvel gets it while watching the delightful Guardians of the Galaxy.
Whether or not you know that Guardians is based on a comic book (it is – a really irreverent and subversive one), you will have a great time with the movie. Director James Gunn (Super, Slither) and the Marvel production team (thank you, Kevin Feige) know that, for an adaptation to work it has to understand what makes cinema (particularly in the summer) sing: pithy dialogue, solid character development, sympathetic underdogs in improbably silly circumstances, poignant back-story, Keystone Cops-meet-Paul Greengrass action sequences, and comedy arising naturally from absurd situations.
The Guardians are comprised of the following oddballs:
- “Star Lord,” a wiseacre space cowboy (expertly played by Parks and Recreation and Everwood TV veteran Chris Pratt), masking his man-with-no-family sadness with a reckless joie de vivre and a love of bad 70s “AM Gold” pop rock
- “Gamora,” a deadly assassin (a smooth and witty Zoe Saldana of Avatar, Star Trek, and the recent Rosemary’s Baby remake) who may or may not be interested in saving the universe while burying her accidental teammates
- “Drax the Destroyer,” a heartbroken tattooed thug (a surprisingly soulful, deftly comic portrayal by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista) seeking vengeance for his lost wife and daughter
- “Groot,” a walking tree (voiced with one singular, repeated phrase “I am Groot” by Vin Diesel) and one half of the film’s comedy duo, stealing the spotlight with Looney Tunes anarchy and gleeful mayhem
- And (my favorite) “Rocket,” the other half of said duo, a rat-a-tat 40s gangster trapped in the body of an adorable (and deadly) anthropomorphic raccoon (voiced hysterically by an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper)
These characters are tossed together by a slapstick prison break on their way to pursuing some galaxy-destroying bauble called an Infinity Gem (ok, it is a comic book movie after all). They are chased by assorted creepy baddies like Lee Pace’s nightmare-inducing genocidal maniac “Ronan the Accuser” and Michael Rooker’s dentally-challenged space pirate “Yondu.”
The plot really doesn’t much matter as it is there chiefly in service to one whimsical set-piece after another. What gives the movie heart is the sheer broken-ness of each hero. At one point, Pratt observes, in one of his character’s many earnest but misguided Yogi Berra-esque “inspirational” moments, “I look around and I see losers. We’re all losers … well, I mean we’ve all lost something.” We laugh but we know exactly what he means.
(Not surprising to anyone in my immediate circle, but I was moved to tears when an inconsolable “Rocket,” after a drunken brawl, laments how soul-crushing it is when people call him “vermin” or “rodent,” not understanding the pain he has experienced in his short life. Said pain is in fact quite literal as his very existence is a result of invasive and cruel experimentation. I assume that’s a thread future films may explore, but, for this animal rights and comic book nut, it was a touch that I appreciated.)
As testament to the power of Marvel Studios, a myriad of heavy hitters show up for (and have a ball with) tiny supporting roles: John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin. If the Harry Potter movie series was the place where BBC and Royal Shakespeare Company-British actors could get their genre ya-yas out, then Marvel now must serve that same purpose for their Academy Award-winning/nominated American contemporaries.
In a summer 2014 movie season that has given us high quality (generally) but little joy, Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome throwback to hot-weather film fun of another era … well, my 1980s era, when Lucas and Spielberg reigned supreme. It’s a sparkling Valentine to all us misfits. Don’t miss it.
Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.