Just when did hucksters and con-men become heroic? Public dishonesty used to be a bad thing, but times change and so do biopics. Thankfully, this is not a Ken Burns documentary. Don’t get us wrong, we love PBS, but first time director, Australian Michael Grassey’s feel good musical is only “inspired” by the imagination of P.T. Barnum.
“The Greatest Showman” celebrates the spectacle that became the birth of show business itself. It tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to become a worldwide sensation. Through eleven elaborately produced show tunes and an abundance of exhilarating choreography, the multi-talented Hugh Jackman (“Les Miserables”) portrays one of the most interesting characters in American history (Barnum, not Wolverine).
Much like the protagonist, this movie is flashy, entertaining and spectacular. There’s not much depth to the story and no cinematic breakthroughs, but you can bring the family, grab a bucket of popcorn and just be entertained for two hours under the big top. Just don’t throw peanut shells on the floor. The jubilant song and dance numbers start right from the opening scenes and carry this remarkable show throughout.
Those who came to see a serious biography will be disappointed and probably annoyed. Barnum was a businessman, author, publisher, politician and philanthropist, but once said of himself “I am a showman by profession and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” So, that is the sole focus of this film and centerpiece of the storyline.
We see Barnum as a poor tailor’s son, “They treated my father like dirt and treated me like dirt.” He knew from an early age that he would make something of himself. After several false starts, Barnum built an exhibition that included a 22-year old midget that he called General Tom Thumb. He then enlisted a giant, a bearded lady, Siamese twins, a fat man, trapeze artists and a tattooed man (not so special in Canyon Lake).
In real life, Barnum’s “Oddities of America” were actually an exploitation and deception on a grand scale. Tom Thumb was really a four-year-old boy that Barnum taught to smoke cigars, drink wine and toss insults. He exhibited a “Feejee Mermaid” that was the head of a monkey on a tail of a fish. Finally, he promoted a monkey-man, which was actually a micro-cephalic black man parading in front of a mouth-gaping audience.
In this story, the irrepressible ringmaster is presenting a “Celebration of Humanity.” His vision empowers these special “X-Men” to emerge from a life of ridicule to stars in the Greatest Show on Earth. While the naysayers mock his “performers” as tawdry and exploited freaks of nature, Barnum dismisses such small-minded thinking and rationalizes, “People come to the show for the pleasure of being hoodwinked.”
Although set in the mid-1800s, the stylish music (Beni Pasek, Justin Paul “La La Land”) is contemporary, flashy and vibrant. The charismatic supporting cast includes Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson and Zendaya (performed own trapeze stunts).
Barnum’s cynics called the show “fake entertainment,” but he responded, “If you can’t find joy in the theater, who is the fraud?” His worst critic admitted, “I never liked your show but knew that the people did.” In his life of many horrendous setbacks, Barnum’s typical solution seemed simply to “send in the clowns.”
“The Greatest Showman” is 105 minutes and rated PG. This has been a dream project for Hugh Jackman for years, but Phineas Taylor Barnum was much more complex than presented and looked more like the dog-faced boy than like Jackman. The big show ran for well over a century, but closed its doors for the last time just a few months ago.
Barnum was erroneously credited as saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but people came to his show again and again. There are some liberating moments in this musical fantasy, but it’s simply designed to uplift people’s spirits during the holiday season. It’s got a sensational Jackman, razzle-dazzle choreography, and inspiring tunes. There’s so much going on, it’s like a three-ring, uh, well, you know.
Ron’s Rating: A- Leigh’s Rating: A-