Midway through the glitter storm of Burlesque, there’s a moment of calm in which Cher, playing the owner of a skin-centric L.A. nightclub, consoles an unhappy dancer with a line that will surely prove deathless. Addressing the younger woman with mom-like concern and an impressively straight face, Cher utters these words: “How many times have I held your hair over the toilet while you threw up everything but your memories?” And you wonder, where are those hair-holding hands when we need them?
The movie plays out like a classic train wreck. The dialogue falls upon the ear like baseball bats. The story—girl flees hick town to chase stardom in the big city—is a shameless cliché. And the imagery pillages any number of old musicals, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to Cabaret (which it rips off with unblushing gusto). But then, midway through the picture, it suddenly becomes clear—well, I think it does—that Burlesque is something more than just a mind-fogging travesty. It’s a “fond tribute” to the Hollywood song-and-dance form, with all of its snappy chatter and blinding pizzazz. And of course unapologetically trivial plots.
Here, having escaped the Iowa sticks, aspiring singer Ali (Christina Aguilera) does the usual jobless pavement-pounding until she comes upon a Sunset Strip nightclub called the Burlesque Lounge: from the outside, a shabby dive; on the inside, a Vegas-y glitz pit complete with lightly-clad chorines and laughably elaborate sets. The owner, a deadpan lady named Tess (Cher), turns Ali away at first; but, inevitably, the spunky girl brazens her way up onstage and knocks everybody out with her gotta-dance-gotta-sing gifts. “How do you do that?” asks the blown-away stage manager (Stanley Tucci, in an extension of the fey grande-dame accessory he played in The Devil Wears Prada). “I dunno,” Ali says. “I just do it.” Says Tess: “I’m gonna go up to my office and plan a whole new show.”
Ali’s ascent at the lounge displaces its former star, Nikki (Kristen Bell), who predictably plots revenge. Also wading into the mix are a rich club-goer named Marcus (Eric Dane), who has immediate eyes for the hot new talent; a hunky bartender named Jack (Cam Gigandet), who’d like to make some moves, too, if only his long-distance fiancée weren’t in the way; and the club’s heavily mascara’d emcee (Alan Cumming), who fulfills the filmmakers’ Cabaret fetish in a leering musical interlude with two pliant tarts. (Cumming won a Tony Award with a similar performance in the 1998 stage revival of Cabaret on Broadway.)
The eye-rolling silliness of the musical genre is also much in evidence. At one point, Ali is compelled by dubious circumstance to move into Jack’s apartment, where they wander around in various states of undress. (There’s no nudity in this PG-13 film, unless you count some briefly bared male buttocks.) Despite the close quarters, though—and Ali’s obvious erotic interest—Jack keeps finding entirely unconvincing reasons to fend her off. And then there’s the abundant vocalizing: Whenever Ali opens her mouth to sing, her voice is suddenly engulfed in studio-quality reverb—even when she’s nowhere near a microphone. If you can’t just go with this sort of thing, you’re at the wrong movie.
Director Steve Antin (who also scripted) is fortunate to have Cher to anchor these gaudy proceedings with her serene diva presence, which keeps the movie from helicoptering off into the camp ozone. (And I’m guessing it was Cher who wheeled in Diane Warren—composer of her 1989 hit, "If I Could Turn Back Time"—to whip up the old-school power ballad, "You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.") But the real star, of course, is Aguilera, here making her feature-film debut. Her huge, booming voice has been something of a marvel ever since her Mouseketeer days back in the early ’90s. She’s now a belter in a tradition going back to Ethel Merman, but with distinctly modern flourishes (she wields melisma like a weapon). She’s prone to overkill, beating "Something’s Got a Hold on Me," the old Etta James hit, into gasping submission; but dialing down a bit, she delivers an appropriately sultry rendition of Mae West’s “A Guy What Takes His Time.” Admirers of this diminutive powerhouse, and of musicals generally, will likely eat this movie up. Unbelievers, on the other hand, will probably go on unbelieving.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.
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