Cher, Christina Aguilera, Eric Dane, Cam Gigandet, Alan Cumming, Peter Gallagher, Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci
(Screen Gems; US theatrical: 24 Nov 2010 (General release); UK theatrical: 24 Nov 2010 (General release); 2010)
If cliches were cash, Burlesque would be a billionaire. It’s so packed with hoary old cinematic chestnuts that squirrels should be raiding it for winter reserves. To say it wastes the talents of everyone involved suggests that singer turned fog horn Christina Aguilera somehow deserved a shot a movie stardom in the first place, and if this is her idea of ‘comeback’, Cher shouldn’t have bothered. One Diane Warren power ballad does not a re-entry into serious acting make. Oh sure, it’s all corny and kitschy, gay characters spewing their sage-like wisdom while borderline streetwalkers turned stage vamps violate every rule of the typical movie musical. But when you promise some splashy song and dance and all you deliver is empty flash, someone has to pay - and it shouldn’t be the audience.
Ms. Monster Lungs plays Alice, a small town girl from a dusty Studio City diner who defies her boss and walks out on her Iowa life. Within moments of landing in LA, she locates Tess’s (Cher) naughty nightclub, where the gals dress provocatively and lip sync to Etta James. She is quickly befriended by hunky bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) and hated by drunken star Nikki (Kristen Bell). Eventually taken on as a waitress, ‘Ali’ can’t wait to get up on that stage. But Tess and her stage manager Sean (Stanley Tucci) are not impressed. Eventually, she lands a gig in the chorus, when a vocal flub forces her to open her mouth and actually sing. Suddenly, Ali is the star of the Burlesque Lounge, a patented draw that just might help Tess pull her business out of the red. But developer Marcus Gerber wants the establishment as part of a massive land development proposal - and won’t take ‘NO’ for an answer. Luckily, he catches Ali’s eye.
Connected (both biologically and professionally) to the Pussycat Dolls and well versed in the world of show tunes and stage fights, writer/director Steve Antin lets his inner diva shine for this wholly unnecessary update of 42nd Street. Armed with a pop star, an aging music icon, and a bevy of interchangeable beauties, he takes liberties with the title entertainment and still thinks he’s making a valid entertainment. Don’t be fooled - fans of the little lady with the massive voice will walk away drunk on this otherwise derivative dross. They get so much of their fave’s scat scream caterwauling that it’s impossible to go away disappointed. Of course, those hoping for some three dimensional characterization or narrative invention will have to wander elsewhere. Antin’s not deviating from the vintage viabilities that made this style of story a stereotype in the first place, and he’s not betting against his Billboard babe either - at least, not now.
For the first 45 minutes or so, you swear a reliance on such relics ought to be illegal. They’re all here: the talented nobody from an one horse town; the cruel and criminal streets of the big city; the club owner with two overdue mortgages, a sponge ex-husband (Peter Gallagher), and a homosexual confidant; a former headliner with a substance abuse problem and a raging ego to match; a good hearted guy with our heroine’s best interest at heart (and a fiancé initially stonewalling their possible hook-up); a bad guy looking to work all the angles to get the property - and the partner - he wants; a flamboyant MC (played by Alan Cummings even) and a series of wholly scripted sob stories. Everyone in Burlesque is broken - Ali has no family, Jack is a frustrated songwriter, Tess can’t find a man to love her, Sean is the king of sleeping around, etc. Of course, in the end, the healing power of Christina’s oral boom box cures them all.
When dealing with the limits of our lead, one has to concede that Ms. Aguilera can indeed sing. There is nothing subtle in her interpretations - it’s all diaphragm and sonic sledgehammering - but unlike most within the current music scene, she’s got the chops. Granted, she can’t act, can’t dance, can’t make us believe or care for her character, and has a hard time looking comfortable in her supposedly romantic moments, but who cares - it’s all about the pipes. Antin plays the seduction scenes like they’re screwball comedy - clearly an internal comment on Ms. Christina’s crisis of chemistry. This is especially true when a drunken Gigandet tries to impress his wayward gal pal by slowly striping off his goofy grade school pajamas until he is walking around his apartment stark naked, a strategically placed box of cookies covering his…unmentionables.
But it’s not the cast that’s Burlesque’s biggest problem - it’s the overall aura of redundancy. Not only have we heard this all before and seen it all before, we’ve experienced it all before. This is Flashdance, down to the torn sweatshirt Ali wears around the house. It’s Showgirls minus the misogyny, the nudity and the gratuitous Kyle McLaughlin. It’s 42nd Street...The Boyfriend...Andy Hardy’s cheerful call to “dress up the barn and put on a show”. It’s a blousy barrelful of moments from a million other movies - and since Antin has nothing new to add, his rote recitation is uninspired. Even the obvious nods to Bob Fosse feel forced and uninspiring. Still, as long as he’s got his star screeching like a banshee, all is right in the formulaic world.
Here’s betting that Burlesque becomes one of those unexpected hits, an unconscionable work of uninspired drivel that somehow manages to connect with a demographic that doesn’t care about things like complexity or aesthetic. They just want to have a good time, hear a favorite performer belt out a slew of potential hits (though Cher’s solo moment “Last of Me” leaves all of Ms. Aguilera’s in the dust) and go home feeling satiated. In fact, that’s exactly the mindset that Depression era filmmakers had when they came up with many of those now celebrated movie musical gems from the so-called “Golden” era. Sadly, in 2010, the economic climate is bad, but not as cataclysmic. Burlesque may be this year’s model of a solid song and dance ‘feel good’. In truth, it’s a trite feel nothing.