1) The Greatest Showman is definitely terrible, but
2) The Greatest Showman does a whole lot of things to specifically target the pleasure centers of people who above all things treasure the gung-ho artifice of classical-era Hollywood musicals. And not, like, the great ones. The ones that are just good. The ones that were made by MGM but not produced by Arthur Freed, let's say. And
3) I am someone who loves classical Hollywood musicals a lot.
So I find myself in the odd position of being prepared to say that a great many things have gone awfully wrong in The Greatest Showman - because they most certainly have - and still feeling pretty good about that star and dollar rating over there on the sidebar. Sometimes, you just have to give it up for really talented hucksters doing their all to impress you even though you know, and they know that you know, that if just outright picking your pocket was an option, they'd be fine with that too. Given that this is one of the several explicit themes of the movie, I think that it's okay, just this once. I cannot think of a better film to earn a "yes, it's shitty, but it has such spirit!" positive review than this flagrantly inaccurate biopic of noted ballyhoo artist, businessman, and circus inventor Phineas Taylor Barnum. There's a righteousness to it that even a Barnum film with some verifiable facts in it wouldn't have.
The story opens at the end, with Barnum leading an enthusiastic rendition - of the film's 11 musical numbers, only one is particularly unenthusiastic, because it is "opera" - of an overproduced, lyrically suspicious pop song masquerading as musical theater. Just as he reaches the climax, he has a sudden hallucination of his whole circus tent empty, and no sooner does that register than he's mentally back in his childhood, when he was the son (Ellis Rubin) of a put-upon tailor, Philo Barnum (Will Swenson, the wrong half of the Audra McDonald-Will Swenson marriage to cast in your musical. I have to assume that he was cast in the hope that McDonald would visit him on set some day, and they could quickly film her performing a musical number before she knew what was going on*). As a boy, P.T. fell in love with the wealthy Charity Hallett (Skylar Dunn), and over the course of a decades-spanning musical number, somehow managed to scrounge up enough money to marry her, over the objections of her awful father (Fredric Lehne). This is, by the way, the kind of movie where it is super fucking easy to figure which characters the filmmakers want us to hate.
Years later, P.T. and Charity (Michelle Williams, given astonishingly little to do) live in poverty with their two daughters (Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely), but are so happy together that they don't care. And, moreover, Charity readily supports her husband in his new quixotic pursuit: he wants to buy a museum of natural oddities. When this proves to be an instantaneous money-loser, he picks up his elder daughter's suggestion to find "living" exhibits, which in this case means people with interesting deformities or abnormal congenital conditions. Or, in the case of trapeze artists Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and her brother W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), they're just African-Americans. I leave it to the reader to decide if this says more about people in the 1840s or the 2010s. Before you can say "bearded lady, short person, conjoined twins, and elephants", he's gone right ahead and invented show business. But he also struggles with a desire for social approval, which is why imports the great Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), at great cost both to his wallet and his marriage. Ultimately, he discovers that the family he has built of society's outcasts matters more than societies bigwigs, and everyone feels a great sense of validation and personal fulfillment, and Zac Efron is involved as the vanilla, pretty rich boy who keeps staring at Zendaya.
It's busy movie, racing through plot points with a sugar rush, and trying out several different identities along the way: loving tribute to the theatricality of screen musicals of yore (the Barnum's rooftop, when they are poor, looks over a view of New York that is so goddamn obviously a painted backdrop); manic pop spectacle with visions of Moulin Rouge! in its eyes; Oscar-hopeful biopic; family movie with earnest but super-clumsy messages about being proud of who you are (the film's big awards play, the anthem "This Is Me", is completely extractable from the movie, and the narrative momentum would probably have only been helped if it had been so extracted). The film's inability to settle is obvious immediately, when it opens with two 20th Century Fox logos, one from the '70s and one from now. From there on out, it keeps coming up with stuff, quick as it possibly can, until it finally passes out at the start of the end credits, leaving behind a script (by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon) that isn't "bad" so much as it is very blurry, racing between elements that it hasn't entirely resolved and elements it definitely hasn't set up, and trusting that if it throws enough colorful costumes at us, we'll be too dazzled to notice the gaps. Honestly, this kind of works.
It's a weird combination of sloppiness and inspiration. Not since Chicago has a film so baldly telegraphed in its editing that about half of its cast are phenomenal dancers, and half are absolute shit - but the half that are good are really good (also it is, I am slightly nervous to say, better-edited in the aggregate than Chicago, despite the red flag of having six editors). The numbers are generally choreographed to pretty stunning effect, either because of the pleasure of watching huge groups of people move in perfect geometric form, or because trapezes are cool, or because of some hypnotic stuff involving glasses being slid up and down a bar. This despite the songs themselves, by the newly hot team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (their movie work has been primarily limited to La La Land, but they're also behind the reigning winner of the Best Musical Tony award, Dear Evan Hansen), which are sonic garbage - the worst kind of overproduced contemporary pop music, drawing grace notes from the worst kind of contemporary hip hop and the worst kind of contemporary indie folk - and include substantial babarisms in the lyrics, like repeating words or entire phrases just to run out the meter, and some hellaciously good bad rhyming: "This Is Me" has the temerity to try to rhyme "dark", "parts", "scars", and "are", and it seems like random chance should have done better than that. Or the matter of Lind's "aria", "Never Enough", which boldly provides the sublimely horrendous rhyme of "little" with "it'll", which gives so few fucks that I have no choice but to admire it.
Musicals with incredibly bad music are usually at a competitive disadvantage, and yet here they're kind of... not? I blame the cast, who are just so cheerful. Jackman especially, who is obviously having a huge blast singing and dancing (it is a sin that he's only been in two movie musicals, and the other was the anti-fun Les Misérables), and who embodies Barnum's huckster spirit as something almost like a dare: you don't want to have a good time? Well, how about I MAKE you have a good time? It's a film that tells you, pretty early on, that there is one and only one way to enjoy the experience of watching it, and here it is: play along, smile because the actors tried so very hard to make you happy, and enjoy the opulence in the sets, costumes, cinematography, and everything else. That's its other borrowing from classical Hollywood: it doesn't skimp on craft, even though it could survive financially while doing so. It's a little tacky and a lot kitschy, but it's well-built, well-designed, well-shot kitsch. And y'know, that's not nothing.
*In the past three hours, I've become completely obsessed with Swenson, who has a strange and fascinating biography, above and beyond his excellent taste in spouses. Among the choicest details: he was a director-star of Mormon films before leaving the church in 2008; and his Wikipedia page contains the one-of-a-kind fantastic line "Since 2012, Swenson has largely appeared in a number of stock photographs for human resources training videos, featured by such companies as HP", which is as of this time my favorite sentence on the internet.