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film review

Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman.Niko Tavernise/The Globe and Mail

Should anyone reading this consider making the inadvisable decision to forfeit money in exchange for a ticket to the P.T. Barnum biographical musical The Greatest Showman, it may help to keep in mind the story of Joice Heth.

Blind and almost totally immobile, Heth was a black slave purchased by P.T. Barnum and exhibited amongst his circus of "oddities." Barnum claimed she was 161 years old, and also the "mammy" (that is, a nursing maid) of George Washington. Both claims were demonstrably false. Not even death released Heth from her contract with Barnum. When she passed in 1836, the opportunistic impresario hired a physician to perform a live, on-stage autopsy for a crowd of 1,500 paying customers.

All of this is to say that P.T. Barnum was a shameless huckster, a charlatan who profited on fraudulence and exploitation, and even, perhaps, a historical villain. One could well imagine a good film about Barnum's life, which explores the less felicitous aspects of his character and casts him as a uniquely American archetype, capitalizing on the public's lust for novelty and sensation – a proto-Trumpian ringleader of hype and spectacle; Citizen Kane in a top hat and crimson tails.

The Greatest Showman is no such film. It's an empty, moronic, pandering and utterly forgettable, low-rent Moulin Rouge that pays curious tribute to Barnum by similarly hailing its audience as slack-jawed rubes, slobbering for whatever passes as entertainment. It's godawful.

The film stars Hugh Jackman – who else? – as Barnum, a poor-born tailor's son who takes out a fraudulent loan, using a fleet of sunken ships as collateral, to open up his pageant of the transmundane (or "freak show," in the parlance of the times). The Greatest Showman depicts Barnum as a savvy businessman and entertainer, as well as a dutiful family man desperate to provide for his wife (Michelle Williams) and two daughters. It also paints him as a profound humanist, whose human zoo – which counted amongst its attractions a little person dressed as Napoleon, a bearded woman, a morbidly obese fellow in a tailored jacket, an interracial trapeze act, a pair of Siamese twins, a giant and even a hirsute "dog boy" – is nothing short of an empowering display of civilization's wondrous weirdness and diversity, even (as one character calls it) "a celebration of humanity."

This is a load of, to use Barnum's phrase, humbug. To take but one example: The Greatest Showman depicts Barnum's lavishly attired little person (billed as "Tom Thumb"; real name Charles Stratton) as a consenting adult man willing to partake in Barnum's circus in the absence of other opportunities. The real, historical Stratton was, in fact, a small boy who was guzzling wine and puffing cigars at five years old, for the amusement of the howling jackals in the bleachers. (The Greatest Showman, naturally, makes no mention of Joice Heth.) Chalk it up to creative license, sure. But there's more sinister skulduggery afoot.

The characterization, mangled plotting, and galling feel-good messaging of The Greatest Showman reveals its utter contempt for its audience. Its rehashed theme, which dates back at least as far as Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, holds that entertainment has an inherent value in its capacity to amuse the downtrodden classes and make them forget their worries. The problem, of course, is that for entertainment to achieve even the modest goal of pleasing distraction it must be, you know, entertaining. And The Greatest Showman is not.

It's also unique among big-budget, big-screen musicals for lacking even a single memorable number. The closest it gets to a hummable toe-tapper is Come Alive, which, at the risk of damning with faint praise, sounds like a Miami Sound Machine D-side. (One might also ponder the appeal of a razzle-dazzle circus act in a narrative world where everyone expresses themselves through spontaneous song-and-dance routines. But nevertheless.)

There's an old showbiz proverb that comes to mind watching The Greatest Showman. It's one commonly misattributed to the real-life P.T. Barnum, and yet sums up the studio's snarling, cynical ambition with this bit of glossy, hollow, holiday-season product: there's a sucker born every minute.

If the filmmakers, and 20th Century Fox, have any hope of recouping the $80-million-plus squandered on their bunkum Barnum musical, they better hope this nasty motto of the mountebank still holds true.

The Greatest Showman opens Dec. 20.

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