Film Review: Burlesque

A paste jewel of a musical, replete with shoddy script and over-strenuous staging, but some overall glamour and intermittent fun.

Burlesque has got to be the only movie musical in which air rights figure as a major plot point. But that’s indicative of the specialized world writer-director Steve Antin has created, a fantasy Los Angeles where the ultimate ambition of talented girls is not to be a film or recording superstar, but to toil nightly in a club where they shake their scantily clad booties, like so many modern day Gypsy Rose Lees or Lili St. Cyrs.

Such is the fate of Ali (Christina Aguilera) who, fresh in town from Iowa, starts as a waitress and ends up as a headliner who eschews traditional lip-synching and sings her heart out to the joy of club audiences and the envy of Nikki (Kristin Bell), drunken erstwhile house diva. Watching over them is their seasoned boss, Tess (Cher), who cherishes her establishment but is faced with serious financial woes which may shut her down.

The real stars of the film are cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and the design team who have created a dazzlingly glamorous atmosphere for all the near-nude cavorting. Obvious long looks have been taken at the work of Bob Fosse and Rob Marshall (who, in turn, owe much to Josef von Sternberg) and most of the film has a very alluring, dark-toned visual patina.
The screenplay is so much blindly derivative rubbish, and the film occupies a fitfully diverting middle ground between the gloriously vulgar excess of Showgirls and the artier ambitions of Marshall's Chicago and Nine. Antin, a music-video veteran making his workmanlike feature debut here, is flashily better in the club scenes, aided by Joey Pizzi and Denise Faye's serviceable choreography, but markedly less successful in the more expositional dramatic moments, which play out their formulaic conceits with a rote flatness and sometime unintentional humor.

The chief perpetrator of such levity is the star, for Aguilera is no kind of actress and her enthusiastic but flat line readings rather belie her early career as a Mousketeer. She works hard, perhaps too much so in her musical numbers, desperately gyrating and warbling to beat the band. (The dances are, admittedly, all staged with the identical pushy, sexy aggressiveness all too familiar from awards shows.) Her voice is undeniably impressive, but I've always found its melisma-ridden power to be rather emptily virtuosic rather than truly distinctive. (She's at her sexy best here doing Mae West's old raunch-fest, "A Guy What Takes His Time.")

The same cannot ever be said of Cher, who retains her smoky, supple sound, and, although she's been off the screen for seven years, is such an eminently familiar and likeable presence that you almost feel like cheering her first song, "Welcome to Burlesque." Unfortunately, her second number—a wannabe eleven o'clock/"Rose's Turn" aria of survival—is an atrociously bad, atrociously staged Diane Warren power ballad no one could save. And what could have been her most moving moment, when she reminisces about her mother's circle of girlfriends whose beauty impressed her as a child, as she applies makeup on Ali, is unfortunately undone by the close-up of her face, which is now so surgically frozen as to be completely devoid of expression. The scene dissolves in risibility when Aguilera sees her newly Cher-ized (overly painted) self in the mirror and murmurs, "Wow."

A brunette Kristen Bell dazzles on "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," and does what she can with her bitchy role with its campy line, "I'm not gonna be replaced by some slut with mutant lungs!" Stanley Tucci continues his screen career as male handmaiden to the divas (after The Devil Wears Prada and Julie and Julia), giving a tiresome, rather condescending performance as Tess' gay stage manager. Alan Cumming is wasted as the club's host, with a fragment of a number with two chorines which lazily recalls his triumphant Broadway turn in Cabaret. Peter Gallagher's Groucho eyebrows appear as Tess' ex-husband/business manager, making one wonder why Antin didn't give her any kind of real love interest to broaden her one-note mama-managerial character. Cam Gigandet shows off the now de rigueur six-pack for young actors as Jack, an unbelievably kind bartender who platonically takes homeless Ali in and then falls in love with her and suffers all kinds of abuse from her.