Certainly, Cher doesn’t need to sell herself: she's Cher, mesmerizingly fabricated, never finished. The movie doesn’t seem to quite get that.
Fresh off a bus from Iowa, Ali (Christina Aguilera) stumbles into a burlesque joint in L.A. Here she is besotted, instantly, by Tess (Cher). The camera cuts from Ali's eyes, wide and shiny, to Tess' figure, tall and daunting. "Show me a little more, show me a little less," she belts, girls in corsets and stockings writhing around her. "You may not be guilty, but you're ready to confess." Watching Ali yearn and glisten, you're sympathetic: this is Cher at her Cher-iest. Who could resist her?
At this point, just a few minutes into Burleseque, you may be forgiven for imagining the film will be all right. For you know that as balls-out entertaining as Cher can be in such outsized moments, she can also turn ironic, wry, even subtle, in her own Cher-ish way. Desperate for a job, a chance to "be up there" the same as the other writhing girls, Ali asks the pretty boy bartender, Jack (Cam Gigandet), whom she has to "flirt with" to get it. He gestures backstage, tells her to ask for Tess: "She's your guy," he nods, "Flirt away." Perhaps missing the gender joke and certainly missing the point that flirting might be subtle, Ali barrels into the dressing room and starts yapping, inexorable. Until Tess speaks: "Why are you in my mirror?"
The simple answer is that Ali has a show to put on. This is her fantasy, so everyone else might as well get out of her way. The movie checks off the requisite steps: Ali's got only 80-some minutes left to find a boyfriend, save the club, school a bad coworker, and forge a friendship with her mother-figure-mentor Tess. First, she must learn what burlesque means, appreciate the heritage she's about to claim as her own, and so the film provides a 90-second montage to Ali's research (she lies on her bed and leafs through magazines and actual books, as opposed to, say, googling). Second, she has to sing live. For years working with lesser talents, Tess insists that customers only want to see girls in their underwear genuflecting to Marilyn Monroe, not hear them. Now, Ali wants to be real, even as she must be fake.
The conceit isn't uninteresting: girls playing drag queens, really all wanting to be Cher, a performer of exquisite limits. Burlesque, the movie proposes, works by simultaneous excess and constraint, a sublime artifice comprised of bodies posed with beads and sequins and feathers. That's not to say you see actual labor here: Ali busts through her audition in mere seconds, then proves she can sing (Etta James, no less) when Nikki (Kristen Bell) sabotages the CD player. But if Ali's ascent from the line to front-and-center isn't about hard work ("It just happens," she says by way of explaining her melismatic bravado), it is a matter of extraordinary, movie-magical artfulness. Editing reimagines time (Ali can be handed a song and perform it a mere two seconds later, completely costumed and choreographed) and the camera recreates space so it's not close to believable, but instead mutable and dreamlike (and less visibly mechanical than Inception's).
None of this is news in a movie musical (or music videos, for that matter, a form notoriously mastered by both Cher and Aguilera). The musical might offer a semblance of plot, with dialogue and locations to prop up the songs and dances, but expectations of the genre are specific. No one will complain that it's unrealistic because that's its job, to be unrealistic, with storylines that are simultaneously efficient and preposterous: a break-in at Ali's rooming house sends her directly to Jack's couch, and a downpour the next morning ensures she stays a "few more days." (He needs to dump his fiancée anyway, as she's more interested in her own career, in New York, than in him.) And Nikki may be jealous of Ali, who takes her place as Tess' favorite, but she inevitably benefits from the wakeup, as she's been drinking too much and dating the creepy sugar-daddy Marcus (Eric Dane).
You might observe that Tess is powerhousey enough that she doesn’t "need" Ali's good effects the way everyone else does. But the movie capitulates here, pretending that Tess needs her new star in order to save her business, which she loves more than any man or woman. Tess' devotion to burlesque supersedes all her other interests, and everyone in her circle enables her. Best friend and stage manager Sean (Stanley Tucci) tells her rightly that she's sensational and so the club will survive, and her business partner and ex-husband Vince (Peter Gallagher) insists wrongly that they've got to sell the place to Marcus (who mostly hangs around the film's edges, an indication of possible trouble that never worries anyone).
Tess doesn’t need too much time on screen to demonstrate why Ali wants to be her. While Ali has a trajectory to follow (waitress to star), Tess shows up when she has a minute. Following her opening number (literally, "Welcome to Burlesque"), she sings a show-stopping ballad that lays out her storyline (asserting, "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me"), for some reason observed only by her DJ, Dave (Terrence Jenkins). It's striking that the film bothers to cut to his face, enthralled and approving, but of course, as you hardly need instruction on the reverence to be paid here (it's Cher's first new song in seven years). Dave's rapture is the film's, an indication of the homage owed to Tess/Cher, as the definitive female drag queen (after Mae West).
Certainly, Cher doesn’t need to sell herself: she's Cher, mesmerizingly fabricated, never finished. The movie doesn’t seem to quite get that. In its ongoing exaltation of Ali/Aguilera (who, following the feeble sales of her CD this year, went so far as to pitch the product on the Dancing With the Stars finale), Burlesque loses momentum when Tess exits, for long minutes. Whether singing or deadpanning or smashing an apostate's car window with a tire iron, Tess is not only the movie's inspiration but also its raison d'être.