Can’t afford Chicago? Want that Cabaret feel but without the impending fascism? I give you Burlesque — a totally unnecessary, frequently hilarious, sporadically awesome movie.
There are three songs in this movie — three! — about the fact that what the singers and dancers are doing, right then as they are singing, is, in fact, burlesque. It would be like a movie about art where the main characters spent a lot of time painting still-lifes of paintbrushes and acrylic tubes, just so you really got that they were artists. This movie works on that level of subtlety — why just have feathers when feathers, glitter and fishnet tights really drive the point home?
Ali (Christina Aguilera) is just a small-town girl living in a lonely midwest world who takes a mid-afternoon bus going anywhere — specifically to Los Angeles to be a Star!, which we know that she can be because we’ve seen her do an impressive song-and-dance routine at the bar where she was waitressing. Shockingly — I mean, gasp — she is not able to instantly find a job as a singer and/or dancer. However, while walking down the street, Ali sees a girl, tarted up in a corset and stockings like some kind of naughty Sugar Plum Fairy, and follows her inside what appears to be a nightclub in the Weimar Republic, complete with Alan Cumming (who plays some kind of performer or something; his awesomeness really serves no purpose here — I suspect he comes with the costumes). There, she is enchanted by burlesque and all its retro-glam sexiness. She approaches the club’s owner, Tess (Cher), and attempts to get herself a job interview. When that doesn’t work, she sweet-talks bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) into letting her work as a waitress, thus getting her sparkly-shoe-wearing foot in the door at the club, where she eventually gets a chance to dance on stage. Top girl Nikki (Kristen Bell) is none too thrilled with this blonde and sassy newcomer, but her attempt to sink Ali backfires when she turns off the vocal track the girls usually lip-sync to. Turns out, Ali isn’t only able to perform Nikki’s moves but she has a good set of pipes on her as well.
Stanley Tucci also appears here — my guess is that, as with Alan Cumming, he’s onscreen because if you have this much fabulousness in a movie, by law, you must also have Tucci, even if you don’t really have a role for him. It’s, like, an OSHA thing. As there are really only two characters who matter in this movie and Cher and Christina are already diva-ing it out in those roles, Tucci has to settle for the relatively thankless job of playing Cher’s gay best friend (though he does eventually get a little charming romance of his own). Peter Gallagher shlumps through the movie a few times, playing a sad sack whose only real job is to make Cher look even more glittery and goddess-like by comparison. And because Christina isn’t one to be outshone in the outshining-supporting-characters department, Eric Dane oozes through the story like some kind of mucus-secreting, spray-tanned slug.
SPOILER ALERT — we never get the much-longed-for Cher/Aguilera sing-off. Nor, because this is PG-13, do we really get any naughty bits. And, while I’m making a list of things we don’t get, there’s also very little in the way of believable dialogue, sense-making plot or multi-dimensional characters. But what Burlesque lacks in storytelling basics it makes up for in jazz hands and sequins. This isn’t a movie about “plot” or “rational actions” — this is a movie about a fad that crested some five or so years back and how much more spectacular that fad can be if you add Cher to it. Because, my god, Cher is a whole kick-line musical by herself. Her skin is disturbingly unwrinkled, her face is fascinatingly flawless, her voice is strangely deep and smoky but also breathy and thin. Sometimes she sounds like someone doing an impersonation of Cher, sometimes she sounds like a woman with a bean up her nose and serious chest cold. Who — what — is this woman? I don’t know and yet I can’t help but watch her.
Christina Aguilera isn’t quite that far down the road into fantasyland, but she’s moving there at a fast clip with this movie that at times feels like a fashion montage married to a music video. The truth is that she has a good strong voice with exactly the right amount of range to pull off the many songs required for this movie, but we never really get to enjoy the voice — the movie is way too concerned with making sure that the music doesn’t interfere with shots of Aguilera doing a fan dance or writhing around on a sofa.
Burlesque does not shoot high enough, or maybe it’s low enough, to really be the movie it promises. There isn’t enough camp or enough seriousness brought to the endeavor and I found myself always wanting both more (in the way of singing and burlesque stagecraft) and less (everything else). But it does make for a very fun, very bedazzled runner-up to the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza I really want it to be. B-
Rated PG-13 for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material. Written and directed by Steve Antin, Burlesque is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.