Saturday, January 6, 2018
Over the holidays, I saw The Greatest Showman and Molly’s Game. You wouldn’t have thought they’d be all that similar, but in fact, they’re both stories about nontraditional entrepreneurs who build unusual businesses from scratch. Molly’s Game understands that; sadly, Greatest Showman does not. As a result, Molly’s Game is the more successful film.
The bulk of Molly’s Game is spent on building a business. She learns the field, she identifies prospects, she finances and markets her game, she maintains her position and handles competition. This is the heart of the movie and much of its appeal lies in the illustration of her ingenuity and expertise.
Those are also the best parts of The Greatest Showman, yet - and I rarely say this about a movie - the film was too short (1.5 hours). Too short because it quickly moves away from that theme to focus on a different story, namely, something about inclusion and acceptance for people who don't fit society’s mold. As one review put it, “it doesn’t really tell Barnum’s story. Rather, it appropriates his name for a pop-culture sermon on inclusion that lets us know, just in case we didn’t realize, that 500-pound men and bearded ladies are not just perfectly valid citizens but ‘glorious.’”
Now that’s a problematic theme for Barnum, and it’s more problematic when the whole idea is filtered through able-bodied, gorgeous, and white Hugh Jackman for the grownups and Zac Efron for the kids, but also, it gets away from what Barnum is famous for - what the title of the movie suggests - namely, his marketing genius.
Barnum is sometimes known as the Shakespeare of advertising for developing PR techniques that are still in use today. He was skilled at writing punchy, eye-catching copy, spinning a yarn – which the movie tells us but only barely demonstrates, most prominently in a single, early moment when he enchants his daughters with an improvised tale to distract from his inability to afford a birthday gift.
(Sidebar: The X-Files episode “Humbug” features a gem of a scene in which the curator of a local museum of circus oddities illustrates, in delightfully understated fashion, the type of storytelling power for which Barnum is remembered. You can see it online here, just jump to the 21:14 mark - at least until someone sends a takedown notice.)
Anyhoo, given Greatest Showman’s short runtime, way more space could have, and should have, been devoted Barnum’s publicity stunts, his advertising skills, the efforts it took to build his brand, and his own ethical line (which didn’t, umm, necessarily match the law’s) between salestalk and fraud. If the movie understood itself better, it could have highlighted those aspects of the character, and it wouldn’t even have had to sacrifice the feel-good-be-yourself message to do it.
So in the end, Greatest Showman didn’t live up to its own hype (Barnum would have been appalled). Molly’s Game, though, was a master class in salesmanship and business savvy.