Burlesque had all the ingredients in place to make one of the great bad movies of our era. A movie that could’ve left Glitter in its spangled dust. A movie that could’ve made Gigli hang its head in retroactive pride. A movie that could’ve dared be mentioned in the same breath as the untouchable Showgirls.
But as my grandmother is oft heard to say: Sure, but no. Burlesque is Christina Aguilera through and through, which means its range is limited to fortissimo gestures, and only occasionally flirts with trashy good times (think “Dirrty”) before faux-demurely pulling back on itself and getting all sincere (think “Beautiful”).
Aguilera stars as Ali, a small-town Iowa girl working as a waitress in a dead end diner, collecting meager tips and making mental note of the fact that she is surrounded by people who she doesn’t wish she could be more like. The credits haven’t even rolled yet, and she’s sticking a dime in the jukebox to sing along with Etta James, packing her bags and buying a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
After one late afternoon’s worth of job hunting, Ali slinks into the pink neon Burlesque nightclub and is instantly smitten with the curvaceous, teasing display of PG-13 flesh. Here, at long last, is the venue for a corn-fed good girl to get some attention! She tries to get an audition, but is rebuffed by Tess (Cher), the impatient, statuesque founder and co-owner of Burlesque.
Not taking no or even maybe for an answer, Ali makes small talk with Jack (Cam Gigandet), the bartender with the friendly eyeliner, grabs a platter and starts serving drinks. See? She’s not selfish. She’s totally willing to pay her dues!
At least for a couple days, when one of the chorines falls a tad pregnant and forces Tess to open auditions. Ali shows up and, after a little “Make me understand you own that stage” prodding from Tess, gives a performance full of Eve Harrington-esque fire and music. But she doesn’t sing. Oh no, not yet. She’s saving that for later.
Up until this point, Burlesque is an enjoyably tacky good time, and the clichéd aspects of the plot (fashioned, in part, by the Twin Cities’ own Oscar-winning stripper-screenwriter Diablo Cody) are an asset, not a liability, because it’s all in the name of dress-me-up fun. But looming in the background is Burlesque’s financial troubles, and the developer who wants to buy the club out from under Tess. And that’s when Ali brings out the big guns. (I’m talking about her voice.)
As a singer, Aguilera is Aguilera. She growls when a grace note might be more appropriate, which is absolutely appropriate for her burlesque milieu. Even her evidently ample self-regard makes sense in this context. (Some of Ali’s tossed off insults thrown at other dancers’ direction will have you rooting against her surprisingly early on.) Cher only gets two numbers to Aguilera’s 45 or so, but she makes the most of them (especially the standard-issue Diane Warren ballad).
Ultimately, Burlesque‘s biggest failing — aside from its liberal “borrowings,” and I use that word generously, from the art direction, musical staging and choreography of Bob Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret — is that it’s got too much of the good kind of drama, and a serious dearth of the bad kind. Is it too much to ask for one wig to get snatched?
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.