The Movie Club

The best special effect of 2017 was natural aging.

Entry 11: The movies that made me cry, and why The Greatest Showman was one of them.

Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Hugh Jackman, all aging naturally on screen.

Photos by Lucasfilm Ltd., Alcon Entertainment/Columbia Pictures, and Marvel Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox

Oh Dana, I can’t deny
A mimosa matinee of
Greatest Showman made me cry
It was just such a dork
Plus the champagne was uncorked
My ironic cool went bye-bye

I just wrote—and deleted—10 draft sentences that sounded defensive about, I’ll admit it, liking Hugh Jackman’s circus musical. Sure, it’s dumb, but …

But it’s not dumb. Jackman’s been trying to make his P.T. Barnum singalong for eight years. He slid on adamantium claws five times before he managed to persuade moneymen to fund his passion project even though he’s Hugh Jackman, beloved blockbuster superstar who also won a Golden Globe for Les Miz. That’s a long time to push a project uphill, to check your red-striped tent for holes. You don’t half-ass something that hard to do.

The Greatest Showman isn’t dumb. It’s lame. It’s razzle-dazzle ridiculously uncool. I definitely wasn’t sobbing at the tunes, which have that booming anthemic blah of all modern musicals with their generic lyrics about believing in yourself. Rebecca Ferguson’s Jenny Lind, the legendary Swedish Nightingale, opens her mouth on an opera stage in 1850 and sounds like Frozen’s Elsa. The last 10 years of movie ballads all sound like YouTube vloggers on stair-steppers persuading themselves to go an extra 20 minutes. Strip the words and you could stick the songs in a car commercial. Composers need to retake Writing for Characters 101 by listening to Peter and the Wolf on repeat until they remember to make each voice distinct.

And it’s physically impossible to shed tears at the aggressive visuals that attack your eyes. Like Barnum sticking a unicorn horn on a horse, The Greatest Showman embraces fakery. The opening number is an impossible circus act with fire-breathers and fireworks and jugglers and dressage horses and knife-throwers and tumblers all coming at you at once wiggling their spirit fingers. Zendaya literally swings toward the lens upside-down on a trapeze, coming into closeup just in time to belt a lyric. Maybe all the animation explains the six editors? It’s the same all-consuming CG of this year’s godawful Beauty and the Beast, done with exponentially more energy. Surrounded by singing china plate chaos, Emma Watson looked bored. But here, everyone’s cranked up to 11, from an unnamed bartender sliding shot-glasses around in the back of Jackman and Zac Efron’s drunken duet to the truly awesome Keala Settle, a Broadway star by way of Honolulu who plays the bosomy Bearded Woman.

At the end of that huge first song, the camera spins into a flashback by circling Jackman’s fancy red jacket as he transforms from a millionaire into a starving kid staring in a shop window at an outfit he can’t afford. To grown-ups, that transition is hammer-hitting-head obvious. But mid-eyeroll, I made myself imagine watching The Greatest Showman when I was 11, the same age as Jackman’s daughter, who he says was his target audience. I would have thought it was the smartest movie of the year and admired how it took a book-report stab at discussing class and racism. P.T. Barnum’s relationship with his wife, played by Michelle Williams, even dives into creative narcissism and emotional sacrifice, like a PG version of Mother! or Phantom Thread.

Sobered up, I’ve concluded that I wasn’t crying at The Greatest Showman—I was crying for it. Jackman’s attempt to revive the florid studio musical was as doomed as a heroine coughing blood into her hankie. (Although I hear its box office grew—yes, grew—over its second weekend, which never happens.) I hate to acknowledge that critics lock into groupthink, but it’s the kind of movie that has to work twice as hard just to make people admit it’s OK. The worst thing about Rotten Tomatoes and #FilmTwitter is that entire genres get deemed lame—especially anything embarrassingly romantic. On the whole, Rotten Tomatoes recoils from vulnerability like it just got tricked into watching a topless scene with its mom. The word weepie gets flung around like an insult, but what’s shameful about something skillfully making you cry? It’s milking the emotion it was designed to squeeze, no different than a horror film that makes you jump. Also, when my friends and I left Greatest Showman, we danced through the mall. My friends claimed they thought it was dumb, but clearly, it burrowed into us like that fungi that takes over the brainstems of carpenter ants. There’s even Instagram proof. But I will not tell you where.

We need to give the next generation our blessing to fall in love—the children even younger than millennials who don’t have a name yet. Adults have gotten our grubby fingerprints all over superhero movies and Star Warses (Warsai?) and, weirdly, even kid flicks as though they’re intended for us. God, in 2016 critics got all excited to savage Kevin Spacey’s talking cat movie as though it was supposed to be Shakespeare or something. (Did anyone invite that Maine Coon to audition for J.P. Getty, by the way?) Last year, people sat down with sabers out for The Boss Baby. It was good, damn it. I bet if it was called Pixar’s Babies, it’d be a shoo-in for Best Animated Picture.

Other movie moments that made me cry in 2017: that opening death in The Last Jedi that, ironically, made the franchise feel violently alive for the first time in three decades. That final strum of “Remember Me” to the fading grandmother in Coco. When Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein slow dance at the prom in Lady Bird. Sienna Miller’s dignity as she exited The Lost City of Z. I tear up every time she leaves the screen because I’m worried she won’t bother coming back for yet another sidelined wife or girlfriend gig, supporting roles that she makes feel big, even though they’re smaller than she deserves. This year, she finally got her first starring role in forever … in a film by James Toback that I guess I’ll never see. My 2018 resolution: Save Sienna. 

I cried three times at Ben Stiller in Brad’s Status, an indie movie take on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty about a middle-class guy who’s ashamed he’s not extraordinary. His college friends are rich and powerful. But most of us are normal, even if, like Brad, we think we deserve greatness. Writer-director Mike White peels away Stiller’s pretensions until he’s bleeding right there on the screen—and I felt raw and naked, too. Pair it with the Instagram-obsessed Ingrid Goes West for a miserably wonderful night.

And finally, I cried at Hugh Jackman—again—at the end of Logan, a stinger in a film that felt like a howl of pain. Despite Zendaya trapeezing into 40-foot-wide dewy pink perfection, my favorite special effect of the year was natural, inevitable age. Logan, The Last Jedi, Blade Runner 2049, even T2, the Trainspotting sequel that’s as much about Brexit as boozing. There were as many new wrinkles in the actors’ faces as in the franchises themselves. (Especially in Blade Runner, which just rolled Harrison Ford out of bed to deliver lines as himself—that chipper guy in a T-shirt definitely wasn’t the Deckard I remember.)

Hollywood can fake anything, but it can’t fake the gravitas of mortality. I hope Tom Cruise lets himself grow old. With Daniel Day-Lewis retired, maybe he can finally get that Oscar. Kameron, what’s your dream Cruise vehicle? By which, I mean one where he actually acts, not clings to the windshield wipers for dear life?