The Greatest Showman review: A musical airbrushing of the sordid history of the freak show
Like a circus-themed, two-hour long Adele video with original-Jumanji-era CGI elephants and lions, The Greatest Showman is a whitewashing movie-musical about the life and trials of PT Barnum, originator of the big top and freak show, and infamous exploiter of hirsute women.
Hugh Jackman stars, and does a decent and sincere enough job belting out some very kicking-out-time-at-GAY-circa-2016-sounding numbers. Autotuned to within an inch of their short lives, the sappy ballads and defiant pop anthems are the anachronistic filling in a montage-heavy sandwich that sees the young working class Barnum rise to fame and fortune to give the woman he loves the life she deserves. Barely any dialogue is spoken out of tune, but you won’t leave with a single line of it stuck in your head.
Barnum was an eminent showman and a peddler of fine hoaxes, and this ropey biopic is as much a fakery as the man’s mermaids and towering Irishmen. It goes nowhere near the reality of the ringmaster’s cruelty, racism and exploitation, swapping it out in favour of a fuzzy Hallmark message that “our differences are what make us special”.
It would be a forgivable airbrushing of history if it had much else going for it, but it’s all blustering spectacle, one-note characters, schlocky cliché and forgettable tunes (despite, as I only afterward discovered, having two Oscar winning composers from the credits of La La Land behind it). There’s a great film about Barnum to be written, and this isn’t even nearly it.