‘The Greatest Showman’ Reminds Audiences Hugh Jackman is the Real Deal

The Greatest Showman movie poster

When it comes to singing, I still consider it to the most challenging of all the performing arts. You can be a good singer technically by hitting all the notes just right, but none of it will matter if you don’t put your heart and soul into each of those notes. You can only hide behind technique for so long before the teacher makes you see that you have to be emotionally open and show the audience you are living the song and not just singing it.

I was strongly reminded of this while watching “The Greatest Showman,” the musical drama which stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the infinitely ambitious showman and entrepreneur who created the Barnum & Bailey Circus which ran for over 140 years before shutting down in 2017. Once Jackman sings his first note, it becomes abundantly clear there is no other actor who could inhabit a man who command an audience to where no one could dare take their eyes off him. The scene threatens to be overwhelmed by a rousing musical number, strong choreography and beautiful cinematography, but nothing can upstage the passion Jackman brings to the role as he dominates every filmmaking element to command the stage like no one else can.

For those of you expecting a complex look at P.T. Barnum, you will need to look elsewhere or, better yet, read a book on the man. Director Michael Gracey along with screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are not out to give us a multi-layered portrayal of a man whose success in life was beset by allegations of abuse of his circus animals among other things. Instead, they are more focused on him as a man eager to break out of the shackles of modern life so he can embrace a lifestyle some would say he is undeserving of. At the very least, you have to give the filmmakers credit for not saying this is “based on a true story,” a phrase you all know I abhor with a passion.

We watch as P.T. captures the heart and affection of Charity (Michelle Williams) from a young age even though they come from two different classes of people, P.T. from the poor and Charity from the rich. Nevertheless, their love for one another breaks through barriers, and they marry and bring two beautiful daughters into the world whom they share a powerful love of imagination and possibilities with.

The scene in which we watch P.T. Barnum work in an office and trying not to becoming completely numbed by a redundant work environment resembles the suffocating office Jonathan Pryce was an employee at in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and from there I was sucked into his quest to escape a life where, as Trent Reznor put it, every day is exactly the same. Of course, his mission in starting an adventurous life is stifled by struggles new beginnings bring about. Barnum ends up buying a museum, but it’s a constant struggle to get anyone to purchase a ticket. Then he employs a number of performers which so-called “normal” people quickly dismiss as freaks of nature. But by giving the public something different, Barnum finally succeeds in making his mark to where nothing he does can be easily ignored.

I found Barnum’s story as presented here fascinating as he tries to find acceptance in a society which pretty much banished him from the day he was born. Barnum even goes out of his way to entice famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to do a series of concerts in America in the hopes that critics who constantly bash his circus act will come to accept him as an upper-class citizen. The question is, will he leave his circus performers and business partners in the dust in the process?

The plot of “The Greatest Showman” is actually quite thin to where the narrative feels more rushed than you might expect in a movie with a running time of 105 minutes. The story of P.T. Barnum is one deserving of a complex and deeply researched screenplay, but the filmmakers here were instead determined to give us a story about a dreamer who defied the odds and led a life of adventure we all hope to live. If you can accept what they were attempting to do here, this movie will prove to be an enjoyable one, and I was willing to accept it for the movie it was trying to be.

The advertisements boast of how “The Greatest Showman” features music by the lyricists of “La La Land,” another movie dedicated to the risks dreamers take. The songs, which include “Come Alive” and “This is Me,” are rousing and will get you into a wonderfully invigorated state as you sit and take in the spectacle. Having said this, this is not the kind of musical which will remain in your mind long after you have watched it. Perhaps my standards for musicals are too high as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” remains the best movie musical Hollywood has released in years (“La La Land” is not far behind).

Aside from Jackman, the other actors acquit themselves nicely. Michelle Williams remains one of the bravest actresses, let alone actors, working today as she never hesitates to lay herself emotionally bare in a scene. Just check out her heartbreaking scene from “Manchester by the Sea” (you’ll know it when it comes up). Williams shares the screen with Jackman to where it should be no surprise she can hold her own with Jackman as their characters’ love is threatened more often than not.

Zac Efron, while I sometimes hoped he would be livelier than he was, certainly has all the right moves as Phillip Carlyle, a playwright who becomes Barnum’s business partner. Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, an acrobat whom Phillip quickly gains a strong affection for, and she makes her presence in this movie a memorable one. I also have to single out Keala Settle who portrays Lettie Lutz, a bearded lady, as her performance of the song “This is Me” proves to be a real show stopper as we root for her and her fellow freakish performers to come out of the shadows to where no one can ignore or easily dismiss them.

With “The Greatest Showman,” you have a movie musical which has flaws not hard to miss, but I was still enthralled with it even though I am not in a rush to buy the soundtrack. Much of this is due to the actors as there is no denying they put all their heart and soul into their roles. Jackman, who has already has had one heck of a year with his penultimate Wolverine performance in “Logan,” remains a powerful presence whether he is appearing on stage or screen, and even if you have issues with this motion picture, there’s no denying there are few actors like him working right now.

As I walked out of the theater, I was reminded of something Groucho Marx once said:

“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Does Barnum believe the same before this movie’s end? I leave it to you to find this out.

* * * out of * * * *

 

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‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Gives the Web-Slinger a New Lease on Life

Spiderman Homecoming poster

The thought of another “Spider-Man” reboot had me rolling my eyes as this comic book character has already gotten through one too many versions already. But after watching Tom Holland portray him in “Captain America: Civil War,” I found myself getting excited about where the character could go from there. So, it’s my relief and delight to tell you all that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” proved to be a really good movie which successfully breathes new life into a franchise suffering from misdirection and too many chefs in the kitchen. With Holland, we also get the best incarnation of Spider-Man/Peter Parker yet as he gives the role a spirited turn full of youthful energy and boundless enthusiasm.

Director Jon Watts and the screenwriters, too many to name here, wisely avoid regurgitating Peter Parker’s origin story the way “The Amazing Spider-Man” did, and they instead hit the ground running. Peter has received a new Spidey suit courtesy of Tony Stark (the always welcome Robert Downey Jr.), but he is not quick to welcome Peter into the Avengers fold. Instead, Peter has to spend his days at high school like any other teenager and with his equally intelligent best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). But when a new villain who even the Avengers don’t see coming called the Vulture starts wreaking havoc in Queens, New York, Peter finds himself too impatient to just sit on the sidelines and let him get away with his felonious deeds.

Holland really hits it out of the park here, and his boundless enthusiasm is set up perfectly through a home movie Peter Parker makes which encapsulates his time with the Avengers and battling Captain America. While the character remains the conflicted superhero who has trouble balancing out his school life with his crime stopping job, Holland makes the role his own and brings such an infectious spirit which makes the proceedings endlessly entertaining. Whereas Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield made Spider-Man too emo for his own good, Holland doesn’t go the same route, and his interpretation is much closer to the character we grew up reading in the comic books. I was frightened he might become too enthusiastic for Spider-Man’s own good, but his performance never becomes ingratiating and he also shows us a vulnerability which feels genuine and not easily achieved.

Of course, comic book movies need a good villain, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has one and, thank goodness, only one. The Vulture is an interesting choice as the person who inhabits him, Adrian Toomes, is as regular a guy as Peter Parker is a regular kid. Adrian is not so much a bad guy as he is a man who feels betrayed and left behind by those who have it all. His belief is that those in power couldn’t care less about the little man or anything he could possibly contribute to society, so he does many villainous things for his own benefit. But unlike many James Bond villains, he is not out for world domination. He just wants to provide for his family like any parent does.

It is a great pleasure to see Michael Keaton return to the world of comic book movies, and he arrives here just as “Batman Returns” celebrates its 25th anniversary. As Adrian Toomes/The Vulture, Keaton renders him into someone all too human even as he lays waste to Queens, New York and anyone foolish enough to get in his way. Even as the character sinks deeper and deeper into the criminal life, Keaton gives Vulture a humanity, albeit a corrupted one, which makes him seem more threatening and morally complex.

The rest of the cast is excellent, and it’s great to see Jon Favreau here as Happy Hogan gets more screen time here than he has in previous Marvel movies. One of the last scenes he shares with Holland is especially good as Hogan comes to see just how much attention he really should have paid to Peter. Downey Jr. continues to bring a sharp attitude to Tony Stark/Iron Man, but he also allows the character to evolve as Tony finds himself becoming a father figure to Peter, albeit a reluctant one. Even Chris Evans shows up in a cameo as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and he steals every scene he is in.

There has been a lot of talk of how Marisa Tomei was too young to play May Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” but that’s ridiculous. If May Parker is the sister to Peter’s mother, she wouldn’t be as old as Rosemary Harris now, would she? Either way, she brings a wonderful sass to this role, and she remains an enormously gifted actress after all these years. All the same, I wished we got to see more of her here as she has a wonderful chemistry in her scenes with Holland. I kept waiting for Tomei to be the Yoda to Holland just as Harris was to Tobey Maguire, but I guess we will see this come about in the inevitable sequel.

Watts previously directed “Cop Car” which was about two young kids who steal a police car from a corrupt sheriff. Essentially, that movie was about kids getting into the kind of trouble they would be smart to avoid, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has the same thing going on. Peter eventually comes to see he is in over his head to where Tony has to take away his Spidey suit. This sets up the third part of the movie where Peter has to see there is more to being a superhero than having a really cool suit. With great power does come great responsibilities, but this Spider-Man comes to see how great power needs to come from within as it cannot simply be co-dependent on nifty gadgets.

Some of the action scenes are a little too frenetic to where it’s hard to tell what is going on, and I was hoping for a little more in the way of emotional gravitas which highlighted Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies. Still, it is a surprise to see how wonderfully inventive “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is as it gives us what appears to be a formulaic story, and yet it keeps giving us one surprise after another, all of which are too clever to spoil here. Just when you think you know how things will play out, the script veers in another direction you don’t see coming, and it makes the movie more interesting as the conflicts become increasingly intense.

I came into “Spider-Man: Homecoming” believing it could never top “Spider-Man 2” which has earned its place among the best comic book/superhero movies of all time. This one doesn’t, but it lands at number two among the “Spider-Man” movies as it is endlessly entertaining and wonderfully cast. My hat is off to the filmmakers for breathing new life into this franchise during a summer where so many others are suffering from fatigue, and I am infinitely eager to see where Spider-Man will go from here. For now, Columbia Pictures appears to have learned from the mistakes made with “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” as this iteration is neither an overstuffed bird or a 2-hour long trailer for movies which never materialized. Here’s hoping the filmmakers keep from making those same mistakes in future installments.

And yes, there are two post-credit sequences, and both are worth sitting through the end credits to get to. The second one is priceless and brilliant. Trust me, you’ll see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *