Greg Eichelberger reviews 'The Greatest Showman' (2017)

Greg Eichelberger
Staff Writer

To begin this review, and with full disclosure, I admit that I am a purist. In other words, when I watch a film or TV series, I want it to be as accurate as humanly possible. Yes, I understand there is room for dramatic license and there is certainly NO biopic or story that can tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but ... Still, it's nice to get some bit of veracity.
This goes double for "The Greatest Showman," the newest musical based on the success of 2016's "La La Land," but less attractive and accessible as that Best Picture winner.
Here, we get the story of Phineus Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, an American showman, politician, and businessman remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Although Barnum was also an author, publisher, philanthropist, and for some time a politician, he said of himself, "I am a showman by profession...and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me," and his personal aim was "to put money in his own coffers."
Well, the producers are now trying to put money into 20th Century-Fox's coffers by featuring Hugh Jackman ("Logan") in the titular role. He looks nothing (and I mean absolutely NOTHING like the real Barnum), but then again, that's nothing new. I mean, who wouldn't want to look at Hugh Jackman as opposed to a short, pudgy, bald guy? In reel life, that happens all the time. In REAL life, however, born in Bethel, Conn., Barnum became a small-business owner in his early 20s, and founded a weekly newspaper, before moving to New York City in 1834. He embarked on an entertainment career, first with a variety troupe called "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater" and soon after by purchasing Scudder's American Museum, which he renamed after himself. Barnum used the venue as a platform to promote hoaxes and human curiosities such as the Fiji Mermaid and Gen. Tom Thumb, among others.
Of course, only that last part is shown on screen in this picture. We see the perfunctory story of his late childhood (he's slugged by his future wife's father before she grows up to become Michelle Williams, GG-nominated for "All the Money In the World"), his nonentity father's death, his marriage and sudden appearance of two seven-plus year-old daughters. He then comes up with the idea of opening a museum, which fails until his kids tell him to bring in live acts to go along with the stuffed animals and wax figures.
These freaks - or oddities - include a bearded lady, a dog-faced man, a fat guy, a tall dude, trapeze artists, acrobats, Chang and Eng Bunker (the original Siamese Twins), some animal trainers, live elephants and Gen. Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey,"Jeremy the Dud"), among others. Later, he brings on promoter Zack Efron ("Baywatch"), which is like throwing dynamite onto a campfire. The facility then begins to surge in popularity, only to incur the wrath of the revolting underclass, who somehow think the freaks are beneath them.
Barnum then risks it all by investing in a tour featuring the "Swedish Nightingale," Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, "The Girl On the Train," "Snowman"), a world famous 19th century opera singer who is made to sound like Adelle here, as well as turned into an attempted homewrecker.
Barnum's advance publicity made Lind a celebrity even before she arrived in the U.S., and tickets for her first concerts were in such demand that he sold them by auction. In real life, the tour provoked a popular furor dubbed "Lind Mania" by the local press, and raised large sums of money for both Lind and Barnum. The film, however, claims it was business disaster.
Revisionist history is just one problem with this film, which also interrupts any semblance of dramatic action with far too many unimaginative tunes and simple-minded moralizing that seeks to equate the 1840s with the 2000-teens, which younger, uninitiated viewers may appreciate, but anyone with ANY intelligence can tell you is absolutely meaningless -almost like comparing star athletes of different eras.
In real life, Barnum also served two terms in the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a Republican for Fairfield. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution over slavery and African-American suffrage, Barnum spoke before the legislature and said, "A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit." Elected in 1875 as Mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., he worked to improve the water supply, bring gas lighting to streets, and enforce liquor and prostitution laws. Barnum was instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and was its first president.
It's just too bad not one of these facts were presented in the movie or even alluded to in a closing credit. Too many mindless songs to squeeze into it's 1 hour 45 minute run time, no doubt.
Directed by Michael Gracie (the upcoming "Muppet Man") and written by Jenny Bicks ("Sex and the City") and Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters," "Chicago"), with stylized art direction by Eric Lewis Beauzay ("Noah," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2") and period costumes by Ellen Mirojnick ("Logan Lucky"). That's a lot of talent and brainpower, the only thing missing from this enthusiastic production, however, is a heart and a soul.
Sad, really ...
Grade: C-