The best way to break it down is like this: If you’re going to see Burlesque for the burlesque, you’re in for a major disappointment. If you’re just going to see it for Cher and Christina Aguilera belting out the tunes, then you’re in marginally better shape. Despite the art form’s alterna-chic revival, average American citizens have no freaking idea what burlesque is anyway. As a result, most viewers will be in the second filmgoing category. To them, I say: The soundtrack is available for download on iTunes and OPI has a new Burlesque nail polish collection. Enjoy the show!
Basically, Burlesque learned everything it knows about burlesque from watching All That Jazz. (Bowler hats + jazz hands = sexy!) Theater historians and Broadway babies would be correct in noting that All That Jazz doesn’t have anything at all to do with burlesque. (Better theatrical inspiration: Sugar Babies.) As a result, Burlesque bears little resemblance to any iteration of the ecdysiast’s art, be it classic or neo. This is pure Broadway fantasy by way of Hollywood artifice as filtered through the “American Idol” generation.
Burlesque is little more than a cinematic clothesline on which to string peppy songs and sparkly costumes. If you break it down by the numbers, though, you get about half a Christina Aguilera concert plus a couple of numbers from Cher’s umpteenth comeback tour for the price of a movie ticket. Not all that bad a deal, really.
As an actual movie, Burlesque is nothing more than a PG-13 remake of Showgirls. Aguilera stars as Ali, an innocent Iowa farm girl (suspension of disbelief this early? Not a good sign) who dreams of moving to Los Angeles in search of bright lights and big-city fame. Quitting her job as a waitress at a small-town greasy spoon (of course), Ali hops a train to stardom. Out in Hollywood, she gets a room at a seedy hotel and hits the storied sidewalks in search of work. For someone who looks and sounds exactly like Christina Aguilera, she’s met with a surprising amount of rejection.
Stumbling into a rundown but fabulous burlesque club on the Sunset Strip, our plucky heroine spots Cher (or “Tess” as we’re calling her here) belting out a number and cavorting around the stage with a bunch of bustier-wearing babes. Instantly smitten with the art of burlesque (as filtered through a Madonna show circa 1994), Ali is determined to land a job at Tess’ Burlesque Lounge.
Again, for a girl who looks and sounds like Christina Aguilera, she runs into an awful lot of resistance. Eventually, though, she lands her big break and gets a spot in the show. From here on out, it’s splashy Vegas-inspired song-and-dance numbers, backstage catfighting with the self-styled “star” of the show (Kristen Bell, doing bitchy quite well) and a romantic triangle with two hunky dudes. Bottom bun in Ali’s shirtless dude sandwich belongs to Jack (Cam Gigandet from Twilight), a friendly bartender who writes songs in his spare time. (Gee, I wonder if that convenient little nugget will figure into the film’s climax?) The top bun is Marcus, a skeevy real estate developer (played by skeevy actor Eric Dane from “Grey’s Anatomy”). And if you can’t figure out why a skeevy real estate developer is hanging out at a low-rent song-and-dance club on Sunset Strip, perhaps the giant “Luxury Condos Coming Soon” sign next door will clue you in to this film’s wheezing plot mechanic.
So anyway, Ali gets her big break and becomes a burlesque superstar. Not that she actually performs any true bump-and-grind. She does purchase a copy of Ann Corio’s seminal striptease history book This Was Burlesque, so kudos for research—but that doesn’t make up for the fact that there’s not a single pasty, G-string or twirling tassel in the entire film. There’s only one vaguely striptease-ish act, and it’s stolen directly from the 1966 Ann-Margaret flick The Swinger. Sorry to say, but Ann-Margret’s performance was way hotter. In fact, I’m quite sure Xtina’s actual stage show is far racier than anything you’re gonna see here. For a film ostensibly about women who take their clothes off, Burlesque sure is aimed at “Sex and the City”-loving ladies and their gay best friends. ... Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Actor-turned-writer/director Steve Antin manages to scrape a few more plot points off the writers’ room floor at RKO Pictures, circa 1935. Tess’ club is going bankrupt, and the doors will be closed unless a financial miracle falls out of the sky and drops conveniently in her lap. It will, of course, so there’s no sense in concerning yourself with the details. Also, Ali’s got to choose between bad boy Marcus and good guy Jack, but I think you know where that’s going, too.
As compensation for the underwritten, cliché-riddled plot, we get lots of Bob Fosse-inspired stage performances, tons of Swarovski crystals and a cameo appearance by Alan Cumming, who does nothing (and I mean nothing) other than remind us he was once in a stage version of Cabaret. Some of the musical numbers are fun. Some are obviously shoehorned in to provide radio-friendly singles for the stars. (Cher’s dour, Diane Warren-penned “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” and Xtina’s dance-club-ready “Show Me How You Burlesque” being the most sore-thumb-like.) But hey, if you’re addicted to glitter and pop stars, this thin musical has got “guilty pleasure” written all over it.