‘Burlesque’ is dreamy but, oh, slightly nightmarish
Burlesque is a mess. But damn it—you can’t walk away hating it. The new musical drama starring Cher and Christina Aquilera—in her big screen debut—is an enigma indeed. It’s creatively clunky in the way Flashdance was; at times silly and limp with its writing (the way Footloose was) yet dramatic and visually striking, showing signs of breathtaking surprise a la Chicago. But if it’s a good story you’re looking for, keep looking. If you want to kill two hours with a playful romp and some eye-popping musical numbers and, of course, Cher, climb on board.
Burlesque is a curious creature because it does manage to cast a spell over its audience, and most of that is thanks to Cher. All the woman needs to do is show up anywhere and the energy shoots north. Here, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning performer gives the film some grace and heart in a story that often feels too forced and specifically designed just to show off Aguilera’s powerful singing chops, something we are already well aware of.
The story: Aguilera is Iowa-bred Ali, a “small-town girl with a big voice and bigger dreams.” We’re never clued in to what those dreams really are. In fact, we know so little about Ali that it’s hard to warm up to her. It’s hard to believe in her. It’s hard to care.
As written by screenwriter-director Steven Antin, Ali is gutsy but one-dimensional. If Antin had spent some more time allowing us into Ali’s sweet little dream world, given us a clue as to why she wants to do what she wants to do, well, then, perhaps we’d give a darn about whether or not she succeeds. This is unfortunate, because unlike most pop divas—Britany, Demi, Mariah, can you hear me?—in real life, Aguilera actually does exude depth, class and style. There’s something there. Here—not so much.
Cher’s Tess is another story. Tess manages Club Burlesque, an old-time/old-school performance venue on Sunset Strip that Aguilera’s Ali stumbles upon and soon begins waiting tables in. (While the club hopes to evoke “burlesque,” it’s more like bastardized burlesque.) Tess has a history. Still friendly with her ex (Peter Gallagher), whom she still owns the faltering club with, she’s also close to her gay pal/manager (Stanley Tucci) and has deep affection for the lip-syncing dancers performing in the club. With Tess, Antin gives us a real human. Somebody smart, playful, intelligent and serious. It’s Cher, but for once, you don’t feel as if you’re always watching Cher. (Thanks Cher.)
There’s more: Ali wants to dance. Tess says no at first. Then Ali finds a bitchy foe in coworker Nikki (Kristen Bell—think Gossip Girl with glitter and dance shoes and stir.) Then … Tess is all up in arms and fake eyelashes because her ex wants to sell the business to Marcus, a real estate developer (Eric Dane/McWhatever from Grey’s Anatomy.) Marcus often shoots hopeful glances Tess’ way, but she doesn’t want to sell the club. He quickly moves on to Ali, hoping to make a dent there.
Ah, Ali—she finally gets a shot to shine center stage but Nikki (snotty, mean, drunken old Nikkie shame on you!) pulls the plug on the CD player pumping out the music and the words the dancin’ gals lip-sync to, and, well, what’s Ali to do? She sings. (And damn good, girl!)
That’s the gist of Burlesque. The second half of the film finds Ali and hunk (of hunks … and how many times does this dude work out if he’s bartending in Burlesque all the time?) Jack (Cam Gigandet) falling for each other. There’s nothing we haven’t seen before in this relationship although kudos to Gigandet for morphing into a slightly more believable cliche than Ali here. There’s also the possibility of the club foreclosing and—gosh, should Tess sell it?—so we have that bit of overused drama to sift through, all of which goes down like empty calories. Ditto as Ali rises to star performer, a gal who can actually sing and dance in the club.
So, on to what’s good—all of the music, the dancing, the performances are brilliant. Cher’s on the roster first, singing the title song “Welcome to Burlesque.” It’s a wonderful number, shades of Cher circa 1997 before “Believe’ sent her back into disco-dancing music heaven. Aguilera shines—very brightly—on her own, too, with “Guy That Takes His Time,” “Tough Lover, “You Haven’t Seen The Last of Me” and a very playful “But I’m a Good Girl.”
Still, Antin’s pacing throws the entire film off—although he does manage to generate levity and humor in moments you’d expect an entire scene to fall flat on its ass—and without a protagonist you just naturally root for, it’s challenging to feel emotionally satiated by the end of this tale. At least in sister flick Flashdance, we grew to care for Jennifer Beals’ Alex. We don’t feel that way here. But none of that may really matters. Cher et al still manage to seduce you, but damn it if you don’t want to look in the mirror later and tell youself to “Snap out of it!”
★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell and Cam Gigandet. Written and directed by Steven Antin. A Sony Pictures Release. 116 minutes.