I just got back from seeing “The Greatest Showman” a second time, and found it to be every bit as enthralling as I did the first time — in some ways, even more so. It’s an enraptured, live-wire, old-school-with-a-kustom-makeover retro musical that takes you back to the feeling you had as a kid the first time you ever saw a movie that made you go “Wow!” Yet I realize that just by saying that, I have made myself sound faintly ridiculous. To call “The Greatest Showman” a movie that has gotten no respect would be to understate the royal kneecapping the critics have given it. I’m on a lonely island of enthusiasm here (though not an entirely isolated island: Stephanie Zacharek of Time and David Ehrlich of IndieWire have both signed on as “Greatest Showman” enthusiasts).
The critics have been naked in their hostility. “The Greatest Showman,” it has been declared, is a pile of wholesome conventional movie-lite squareness. The way the film turns P.T. Barnum’s circus of human oddities into a freak-show cavalcade of identity politics, all standing tall to claim their pride and dignity (you go, Bearded Lady!), is a pious and sentimental 21st-century anachronism. The film whitewashes Barnum himself, taking someone who was an exploitative profiteer and transforming him into a saintly grinning maestro-with-a-dream played with rambunctious gusto by Hugh Jackman. And I haven’t even mentioned all that catchy Broadway dance pop, staged in music-video numbers that look like something out of a family-friendly version of “Moulin Rouge!”
In reaction to these criticisms, I can only say: Yes, yes, yes, and yes. “The Greatest Showman” is, does, and commits each of those mortal cinematic sins. It’s an ultra-square movie. It salutes the Bearded Lady, Tom Thumb, and the rest as if they were members of some persecuted minority group united in a chorus of “What I Did for Love.” And if you’re looking for “reality,” you’d be better off saving your ticket money and spending 20 dutiful minutes perusing the P.T. Barnum page on Wikipedia.
Yet the historical-accuracy point, which has been made by more than a few critics, raises a telling question. Namely: Who in God’s name goes to a kaleidoscopic musical about P.T. Barnum looking for a chronicle of the complex historical figure he really was? As someone who has often argued for greater reality in movies, I might feel differently if the film were some epic dramatic P.T. Barnum biopic. But it’s not. It has roughly the same relation to the P.T. Barnum story — glancing, affectionate, fanciful — as “Singin’ in the Rain” does to the history of the waning days of silent film. “The Greatest Showman” is unabashedly a concoction. But here’s the thing: It’s a passionate and bedazzling one, a gracefully crafted tall tale that glides by without belaboring a moment. It’s as if Baz Luhrmann went back in time and made a musical for MGM in the late ’40s.
Here, I think, is why the reviews have been so united in their hate. The points raised above can all be debated, but what the critics are really saying is what they’re not actually coming out and saying: that “The Greatest Showman” is fataly uncool. It’s a splashy but chaste PG revel, with the barest hint of a dark side. It’s like a Blue State musical made for an audience of Red State potluck geeks.
Yet on that score, it’s an entrancing romance-of-showbiz bauble, with songs so infectious they soar. “Moulin Rouge!,” for all its visionary passion, was laced with puckish irony, and “La La Land” embedded its sincerity in a heady look-we’re-making-a-musical! meta splendor. “The Greatest Showman” never gets within a country mile of irony. It serves up its wide-screen emotion in big, sincere slabs. And that, let’s just say it, is something that now makes certain people cringe.
The cool factor has bled into film criticism from pop-music criticism, where enthusiasm for uncool acts — like, say, Coldplay — is frowned upon, unless it’s positioned as some sort of semi-apologetic guilty pleasure. And you can feel the influence of the cool factor in the way that certain films that might once have been power players have been tossed onto a slag heap of diminished respectability. “Darkest Hour,” starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, met with an early burst of acclaim, but it’s so straight-down-the-middle in its inspirational nobility that it began to be treated by the press as uncool. That’s why Oldman, once considered a lock for an Academy Award win, is no longer a lock; there’s no hipster quotient to his highly traditional bravura-under-latex performance. And a tastefully intelligent physical-deformity weeper hit like “Wonder,” which would once have been a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, now doesn’t even seem to be in the right ballpark. Even its box-office success doesn’t work for it. It’s hot…but it’s not cool.
I’m not saying these movies should be winning Oscars. But I’m taking note of a shift away from middlebrow taste on the part of the film-critic establishment that’s now made itself part of the awards machine. When applied to a movie like “The Greatest Showman,” that anti-middlebrow fervor becomes a lethal dart. As a drama that expresses itself in joyful bursts of pop passion, “The Greatest Showman” is twice the movie that “Baby Driver” was, yet “Baby Driver,” for all its stitched-together faux-Tarantino overkill, was rhapsodized over as the coolest movie of the year. “The Greatest Showman” is one of the uncoolest, because it’s a wholehearted musical that’s neither kitschy nor ironic nor hip.
Yet audiences are responding to it. For a movie that started slow out of the gate, it’s enjoying a surprisingly robust second weekend — an indication that the word of mouth on it is creating some ripples. I feel like I know why. It’s a picture with so much to savor, from the barroom drinking duet between Jackman and Zac Efron that’s a giddy tour de force of tossed shot glasses to the glory of Zendaya’s trapeze moves and the burnt-in hurt of her tears; from Rebecca Ferguson-with-the-voice-of-Loren Allred’s incandescent performance of “Never Enough” to the exquisite way that Jackman, in the last scene, throws away the line “The show must go on!” If you see “The Greatest Showman” with an open heart, I promise the movie will sweep you up. You just won’t feel cool about it.