There's a moment in The Greatest Showman where P.T. Barnum's daughter tells her father that she's quitting ballet. She's just had her first recital, and the other society girls her age have made it clear that she's not welcome. But rather than admit how the other girls hurt her, and that she feels out of place, she tells her father that ballet's just too hard. When he tells her that he believes in her and that she can do it, she tells him that ballet requires real talent. It's not fake like his circus.
The daughter didn't intend to cut Hugh Jackman's P.T. Barnum with that statement, but rather just repeated what she'd heard everyone around her saying. But that question-what's real and what's fake-runs throughout the film.
After catching a glimpse of Barnum at the pinnacle of his success, the film flashes back to his childhood and we follow his journey from poor tailor's son to the world's foremost showman. He woos Charity (Michelle Williams), the daughter of a wealthy family for whom Barnum's father tailored, from the time they're about ten years old, until they're adults and she leaves her life of privilege to attach herself to Barnum, who could provide nothing but big plans and the optimism that he knew how to follow through on them.
The film transpires over a number of decades. It's obvious that time passes as Barnum grows from a child, to a newlywed, and then to a father. Once he reaches adulthood it's less clear how much time is passing. Did his rise and fall occur in the span of a couple of years, or a few decades? We don't know. Perhaps the filmmakers didn't find that important, but as someone who's always trying to place events on a timeline, it annoyed me at times. His daughters didn't grow very old, so maybe it all happened in a few years. If so, it's an eventful few years.
However, while the events of the film are important in telling the story, the real substance of the film is the question of what's fake versus what's real, and the role that joy plays in our lives.
As Barnum begins putting together his collection of human oddities who will form the initial backbone of his circus, his goes to visit a dwarf who lives with his mother. He tells the man that he's putting together a show and he needs a star. "You want people to laugh at me," the dwarf said. To which Barnum replies, "They're laughing anyway, kid, so you might as well get paid." The dwarf shuts the door in his face, so Barnum tries a different tack, and appeals to the man's desire for positive attention, which works.
In that moment we see Barnum's ability to instantly read a situation and figure out what someone wants, even if they don't know they want it. In just a few seconds the dwarf went from someone who appeared disinterested in even talking to Barnum, to following him to his circus. And once Barnum figured out what the people wanted, all he had to do was give it to them and then convince them that they wanted it.
One of the characters, the Bearded Woman (Keala Settle), says, "Our own mothers were ashamed of us. They hid us our whole lives." Barnum had the foresight to understand that the general public had an interest in seeing those people who had always been hidden away, and that if he produced a good show the audience would come to see oddities, but eventually move past that and enjoy the entertainment.
In watching the movie we can sort of feel how those first crowds felt. The dwarf is short, and the woman has a beard, and another guy has tons of tattoos, and a different guy is fat. It's easy to get hung up on those things, but as soon as they sing, and dance, and perform, it's just as easy to forget about them and marvel at the show. That's what happened as I watched.
Jackman is perfect for this. He's got the sort of everyman quality that's important for portraying Barnum, yet his singing and dancing seemed impeccable to my amateur eye. He can act, too, which he shows us in the non-musical scenes. Michelle Williams is great as his wife. We believe that she loves him so much that she's willing to turn away from her family, and when Barnum loses site of what's important, she sets him straight by reminding him that she never cared about anything other than living life with the man she fell in love with.
This is the sort of movie that will age very well. It's a big production, with memorable songs, big and small. The scenes where just one or two characters sing are touching, and scenes with a few dozen singing are exhilarating. There's a lot here, and a second or third viewing would reveal more to see, simply because there's so much in the scenes with big songs that we can't possibly take it all in at once.
And although the theater critic, and high society leaders, and the ruffian townies are concerned throughout with what's real and what's fake, by the end we understand that to Barnum the question of real or fake was irrelevant. "Men suffer more from imagining too little, than imagining too much," he says when defending his show.
The film begins with a quote from Barnum: "The noblest art is that of making others happy." If that's true, then this film is very noble indeed.
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