The 400-Word Review: The Greatest Showman

By Sean Collier

December 28, 2017

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There’s a sucker born every minute. That has to be good news for 20th Century Fox, as it means there is a sizable audience that might accidentally see their half-hearted P.T. Barnum musical, The Greatest Showman.

By the way, Barnum never actually said that line about suckers. But it’s a fitting way to start, because the objective truth has no business anywhere near this movie.

A highly fictionalized biopic in the form of a cut-rate, Broadway-style musical, The Greatest Showman begins with a flash forward to what will eventually be its titular, and closing, number. We rewind to meet Barnum as a young man (Ellis Rubin), toiling and dreaming big while harboring a crush on the rich girl down the lane (Skylar Dunn). A bridge later, they’re adults, with the thinly-sketched Charity (Michelle Williams) playing homemaker for the struggling P.T. (Hugh Jackman). He runs a quick con to score some capital, founds a museum ... and fails.

Then he gets the idea to turn his hall of curiosities into a stage show of living, breathing oddities and daredevils, wooing 19th-century New York’s unconventional citizens into a life of exploitation. The crowds love it! The critics hate it! The freaks are ignored by the story when it is convenient, until it’s time for them to get upset (at Barnum, for also ignoring them) and sing their “Let It Go” clone, “This is Me.”


The musical-obsessed Jackman has been attached to this project for nearly a decade; it’s a shame he didn’t notice it going off the rails. Other than the title track and “This is Me,” none of the tunes are memorable; one assumes that songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed these duds long before working on their vastly superior songs for “La La Land” and the Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen.”

First-time director Michael Gracey can’t find a throughline to bind the script (by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, who would rather you focused on Beauty and the Beast when evaluating his 2017). A slow romance between a trapeze artist (Zendaya) and a second-string ringmaster (Zac Efron) gives a bit of lift.

The irony in all those production delays: The Greatest Showman took so long to appear that it arrived after the death of Barnum’s circus, which folded in May. No matter, though; this movie was never going to sell anyone on a trip to the big top.

My Rating: 3/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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