Let's face it.
America loves an entertaining con man.
Indeed, there truly is a sucker born every minute.
Phineas Taylor Barnum was certainly not the first of America's truly entertaining con men. Phineas Taylor Barnum was also, most certainly, not the last.
You could easily be forgiven for not realizing the error of Barnum's ways while watching The Greatest Showman, an everlasting gobstopper of a motion picture that forsakes harsh reality for sugary sweetness and presents, far more often than not, Barnum as a do-gooder humanitarian of sorts whose benevolent spirit empowered these poor lost souls toward a better life.
Barnum was no humanitarian. Barnum discovered society's weakness, an insatiable and morbid curiosity and overwhelming desire to exploit those less fortunate, and made it work to his advantage.
The Greatest Showman, however, isn't particularly concerned about Barnum's darker side. In fact, it practically dares you to even mention it. The Greatest Showman is a relentlessly feel-good musical, a distant cousin of sorts to Moulin Rouge in spirit but not song, a film "inspired by the ambition and imagination of P.T. Barnum." Here, Barnum is portrayed simply as an inspirational figure, a man who started with nothing and created one of the world's most mesmerizing spectacles.
Star Hugh Jackman worked for years to bring The Greatest Showman to the big screen, and understandably so. Jackman is a natural as the constantly gleaming and scheming Barnum, here portrayed as a charismatic man with complete devotion to his wife (Michelle Williams) and two children and a bold yet semi-twisted vision that he convinces himself is "a celebration of humanity," a phrase that one of his odd characters proclaims.
To be fair, The Greatest Showman is far from the first film to play loose with the facts and, indeed, it would be an impossible argument to make that any cinematic effort is required to stick to the facts. The Greatest Showman is far more about the birth of entertainment than it is about the life of Barnum. Barnum is simply the key figure through whom the message is delivered.
The message? Exploitation sells. Exploitation entertains. Exploitation will make you very, very much.
Despite my resistance to its packaging, the simple truth is that The Greatest Showman is a reasonably entertaining film. At a brisk and breezy 105-minute running time, The Greatest Showman doesn't get itself bogged down in unnecessary story threads and instead moves along at quite the nice clip with an almost refreshing lack of complexity that makes the film rather retro in spirit and tone. The tunes, contributed by La La Land's Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are reasonably entertaining in the movie theatre yet almost instantly forgettable on the way out with the possible exception of "Come Alive," a vibrant little tune that you may find yourself bopping around to a couple days later as you struggle to remember the lyrics.
While one can fault this sugar-coated take on the Barnum character, it's hard to find fault with Jackman's portrayal of him. Jackman has always had a sort of ordinary joe quality about him. Jackman knows how to portray these guys next door with a sort of domestic edge and a seemingly hard-earned confidence. Jackman's performance is so winning here that it's easy to admire his years-long conviction to bringing this story to life, one just wishes the story had at least dipped its big toe in the pool of truth.
While the relationship between the 49-year-old Jackman and 37-year-old Williams never quite convinces, the big screen is always better with Williams on it. Williams adds an emotional depth even if she can't quite convince us that she'd even acknowledge this guy on the subway in real life.
Inspired by his daughter's advice to add something "alive" to his show in the early stages, Barnum tracks down such unique curiosities as Keala Settles' Bearded Lady, Sam Humphrey's dwarf known as Tom Thumb, and Zendaya's entrancing acrobat. As the show grows in success, Barnum attracts the financial support of successful playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and talented songstress Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). In each of these instances, the truth of the character is far more complex than what is portrayed in The Greatest Showman but the cast performs ably and the film's "Up With People" vibe is seldom disrupted.
The simple truth is that The Greatest Showman never quite becomes the film that I hoped it would be, though I'm fairly certain it has become the show it was intended to be. With a cast mostly comprised of truly gifted singers and dancers, one almost wishes that first-time feature director Michael Gracey had turned the film into more of a traditional Hollywood musical than just a hyper-stylized music video.
Opening on a busy holiday weekend, it'll be interesting to see if America warms up to this entertaining yet rather shallow beast of a film, a film that self-proclaims to celebrate weirdness but does so in ways that are safe, saccharine and devoid of complexity. Decidedly different than a good majority of what's available in the multiplexes right now, The Greatest Showman is Hugh Jackman's longtime dream brought to life and, strangely enough, an American reality put to song.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic