Directed by: Steve Antin
Starring: Cher, Christina Aguilera, Eric Dane, Cam Giganet, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell, Peter Gallagher
Burlesque is one dumb movie—and that’s about the nicest way of describing this amazing collection of backstage musical clichés from the dimly recalled days of movie musical antiquity. How antique are we talking here? Well, when Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman satirized the early sound film in their 1930 play Once in a Lifetime, this is the kind of clichéd movie musical they were making fun of. And bear in mind that movie musicals had only been around for a couple years when this nonsense was already considered vieux jeux. The intervening 80 years haven’t brought the roses back to its cheeks.
Ali (Christina Aguilera in her “acting” debut) leaves her job at a rundown bar in Iowa—taking only what she is owed from the cash register (meaning she’s merely resourceful and not actually dishonest)—and buys herself a one-way (this is stressed) ticket to L.A. where she is sure her singing and dancing abilities will find a ready market. No sooner does she hit the big town than she enters what we call the “montage phase” of her career, meaning she suffers a lot of rejection in a minimum of screen time. Of course, this rejection finds her standing outside the Burlesque nightclub, which she mistakes for a strip club—earning the disdain of the guy collecting the cover charge, Alexis (Alan Cumming trying to invoke Joel Grey). Gingerly forking over the $20 cover, Ali enters just as the club’s owner, Tess (Cher), happens to launch into “Welcome to Burlesque.”
Transfixed by the glamour and glitz—even if it resembles nothing so much as an outtake from Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002)—Ali decides she wants a job there and sets out to get one. To this end, she strikes up a friendship with hunky Kentucky-farm-boy-turned-bartender Jack (improbably played by Cam Gigandet), which ultimately lands her a job waiting tables. Of course, this is but a steppingstone to stardom. When the current troublesome star of Burlesque, Nikki (Kristin Bell), is deemed too drunk to go on, Ali gets to wow ‘em with her impressive voice. This is when Ali enters a second montage phase, meaning her soaring popularity is charted in a minimum of time. The unfortunate thing about this is that it gives the movie more time to disgorge the contents of its cornucopia of clichés. At one point—when it was early enough to seem practical to do so—I considered trying to keep a running total of the clichés. It wasn’t long before the enormity of the task proved too great for me in terms of sheer volume.
But back to the movie, Tess has one real friend, her gay sidekick Sean (Stanley Tucci), and a sleazy ex-husband, Vince (Peter Gallagher), who is also half-owner of the club. Vince wants to sell to greedy developer Marcus (Eric Dane, TV’s Grey’s Anatomy), who hovers about the club even more after he gets the hots for Ali. And wouldn’t you know it? Tess has a balloon payment she can’t meet coming due. Meanwhile, Ali and Jack are feeling more and more drawn to each other, even though he has a fiancée in New York. Oh, yes, and that scheming, vengeful Nikki is scheming her vengeance. There’s more, but that’s enough for half-a-dozen bad country songs right there.
On the plus side, Cher and Stanley Tucci come through like the pros they are. They even manage to make you forget that you’re seeing them adrift in a sea of mediocre scripting. Otherwise, about all that can be said is that Burlesque certainly is energetic as it recycles things it appropriated from other movies like Chicago, Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Cabaret (1972)—improving on none of them. It often looks like it has a closer kinship to Can’t Stop the Music (1980) with the Village People than anything else—that and a parody of Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969). The inclusion of a magnificently unfunny act with Alan Cumming—apparently meant to evoke Cabaret—actually looks like something out of The Human Centipede. And while magnificently unfunny sums up my personal take on the whole neo-burlesque movement, I doubt that was the aim.
As for Christina Aguilera? Well, she can sing, though I’m not sure that was in dispute. But can she act? She doesn’t exactly embarrass herself—beyond the embarrassment inherent in her dumb role in this dumb movie—but it’s not a performance that makes me excited by the prospect of her next acting endeavor. I merely don’t live in fear of it. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material.