Plot: P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) was the son of a poor tailor and always felt like an outsider, like people judged him for his social status, not who he was as a person. As an adult, he married his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams), despite her father’s disapproval. The couple would build a life together, but Barnum always felt like his beloved family deserved more, so when he is fired from an accounting position, he decides to take a bold risk. He uses some shady tactics to land a sizable bank loan, then constructs a museum of the odd and unusual, hoping to lure in folks in search of a unique entertainment experience. The draw is minimal at first, but then he decides to take another risk and hire in living exhibits, showcasing people with unusual attributes and conditions. The result is booming business, but Barnum seems driven to want more and more, no matter the level of success.
Entertainment Value: If taken at face value, The Greatest Showman is a wildly inaccurate look at an interesting historical figure, but if you look at as one final, epic hoax from Barnum, it is brilliant. The real life Barnum was a master of perception and deception, so the movie glossing over his lesser qualities and seedier activities make perfect sense, if it is indeed a tribute to his humbugs. The movie does paint Barnum as a near saint, just a workaholic with some self worth issues, actually going as far to have Barnum proclaim that money isn’t that important. Of course, real life shatters that vision of Barnum, but again, I choose to think the movie pays tribute to the master of social manipulation by manipulating the audience for him, this one last time. So as an absurd, over the top love letter to Barnum, the movie is a wild success, but if the wheels fall off if you take it at face value. The visual scope and splendor is remarkable, giving the movie the big ballyhoo presence Barnum’s tale deserves, but it creaks along when emotion becomes involved. I appreciated the attempt to make the freak show about inclusion and in real life, it did lead to enhanced lives for many of those involved, but to pretend Barnum’s primary concern wasn’t profit, that’s a stretch.
The cast here is great, with Hugh Jackman in the lead and playing Barnum as a happy go lucky, family man who happens to have a side business. I did appreciate that the Jenny Linde thread starts to paint him in a more believable light, but then it quickly backtracks and returns his halo. But Jackman clearly has passion for the material and that shines throughout his performance and in truth, I was glad to see him back in a musical, as he is such a natural here. Michelle Williams is fine, but isn’t given much to do as Barnum’s wife, just around when the story needs her and then she vanishes. Zac Efron and Zendaya provide our new romance thread and are capable, with Zendaya given some beautiful visually charged segments. Her trapeze work is a highlight of the movie and her slow motion moments really stand out. The freaks are fun, but the movie plays it safe and doesn’t present the less appealing attractions, even sticking the dog faced boy off screen in most cases. In the end, I am torn about The Greatest Showman, as I see it as a big hoax designed to pay tribute to a master of audience manipulation, but then again, it is so earnest, that might not be the case. But I think it is a fun movie with some gorgeous visuals and catchy songs, regardless of whether it is just a blind historical biopic or a brilliant piece of audience deception.