In 19th century New York, would-be impresario PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a dreamer from impoverished roots, is trying to find the magic ingredient that will draw crowds to his struggling museum. He hits upon the notion of exhibiting human “oddities” – people with unusual features or unusual skills. Enlisting playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his partner, Barnum assembles a troupe of marvels, including acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and little person Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). The crowds and the money start pouring in, but the respectability that Barnum needs to impress the upper crust parents of his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) still eludes him.
The Greatest Showman‘s only goal is to entertain the hell out of you, and it pursues it with single-minded determination and all the razzle-dazzle it can muster. The film uses the career of the real life PT Barnum as a loose framework (this is very much a “print the legend” situation) but make no mistake, this is not so much about Barnum as it is about Jackman. The Greatest Showman is a showcase for the all-singing, all dancing Boy From Oz, and seems to be a kind of mission statement: a reminder that, while the world might know Hugh as a certain clawed mutant marauder, his heart belongs to the theatre.
Indeed, both film and star are so determined to make us smile, and the proceedings are so packed with light, colour, and spectacle, that it’s just about enough to make you not notice the shaky foundations the whole shebang is built upon. Dramatically speaking, there’s not a whole lot going on; while a happy ending is rarely in doubt when it comes to this sort of thing (Moulin Rouge, clearly a stylistic influence on first time director Michael Gracey, being an obvious exception), even the illusion of risk is absent here. Character relationships are poorly defined, be they between Barnum and his family, who he gently neglects but keeps in well-heeled comfort, or Barnum and his would-be protege, Carlyle, whose mentor/student dynamic never really clicks.
The exception is the budding romance between Carlyle and Anne, which flies in the face of the racist social conventions of the time, but the success of that subplot is mainly down to Zendaya – in a work packed with bombast and noise, her talent and charm shine through cleanly, and she is the ensemble’s clear standout, the magnificently-voiced Keala settles being a close second.
Thematically, The Greatest Showman takes a stab at individuality and freedom of expression, the old “follow your dreams” bit, but fails to push in any interesting directions. The obvious point that, while many of the people working for him have limited options when it comes to employment and lifestyle, the white, male, able-bodied and comparatively wealthy Barnum chooses the showbiz world, is never made, and the chorus of oddities are basically background artists in service to Barnum’s aggrandisement. To be fair, Barnum’s story is Barnum’s story, but there’s a more deft and more interesting way to tell it, and given that the film has sifted through the facts of the real Barnum’s life, picking and discarding to fit its chosen form, there’s plenty of material from which to craft a more balanced and aware story.
But there’s music and dancing and explosions of colour, a menagerie of (mostly) CGI animals, a fantastical roster of astonishing people and things (sadly, no Feejee Mermaid), and plenty of rousing, feel good songs – “This is Me” isn’t going away any time soon. Still, for all that it entertains in the moment, The Greatest Showman feels like a missed opportunity.
It’s another beautiful day on the beach and the Baywatch lifeguard team, headed by the gung-ho Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) are holding try outs.
Among this year’s potential recruits are the driven Summer (Alexandra Daddario), requisite tubby comic relief Ronnie (Jon Bass), and former Olympian party animal Matt (Zan Efron), who thinks he can coast on his dual gold medals. The team will need all the help they can get, too, as a dead body washed up on the shore points to a drug smuggling conspiracy making their beloved bay unsafe. Could it have anything to do with the new club recently opened by real estate magnate, Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra)? You betcha. Will you care? Hell no.
There’s a school of thought in American filmmaking that essentially believes that anything a couple of reasonably funny, charismatic people can come up with on the spot in front of the camera is bound to be funnier than anything scripted, and it is absolutely killing American comedy. Baywatch is simply the latest casualty of a system that privileges star presence over structure; unfortunately the talents of Mssrs. The Rock and Efron – and they are legion – fall short of the Herculean task that is saving Baywatch from itself.
It is perhaps forgivable, in a way – Baywatch, in any form, be it original recipe, Nights, Hawaii, or this, is unsophisticated fare, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Its remit is to be sexy and funny, and populating the cast with an array of hot bods and putting Horrible Bosses director Seth Gordon in charge should take care of both those requirements, one would think. But simple fare still takes considerable craft, and when your comedic fall back position is “have the fat guy dance”, there’s precious little in evidence. There are a few laughs to be had – Johnson tearing strips off of Efron on the reg is never not fun – but far less than you’d want out of something like this.
What’s really surprising is how unsexy it is, given it’s certainly not shy about showing off acres of flesh. Remember, Baywatch the series was all about sex, but it was the ’90s and they weren’t allowed to actually show it – that’s why we got so much slow motion running. The 2017 version has a weirdly puritanical approach to sex, so almost nobody really hooks up, and characters who show arousal or attraction are shamed for it (there’s one exception which would almost subvert the trope if the character in question wasn’t routinely degraded at every other point of the narrative).
So, Baywatch. It’s not funny, and it’s not sexy, so what is it? Well, it’s in cinemas, but probably not for long.