The choicest dialogue in Burlesque provokes the sort of laughter that other, intentionally funny films only dream of generating. Gather ’round for some free samples!
In the opening seconds, a country singer on the helpful soundtrack sings: “If ah ever left this town. ...” Not one minute later, the plucky Iowa waitress played by Christina Aguilera announces to her co-worker: “Ah’m leavin’.”
After a few bars of ’80s synthesizer and a travel montage, young Ali gets off the bus to L.A. and stumbles head first into a swanky neo-burlesque joint on Sunset Boulevard, run by someone named Tess played by something called Cher. Ali worms her way in as a cocktail waitress, but she dreams bigger: She yearns to bump and grind and cleavage like the other performers, while still staying this side of an R rating. “I’ve just never seen anything like this before!” she says.
Auditioning for Tess, Ali slays her with a number called “Wagon Wheel Watusi,” and a star is born. Then, when Tess hears her sing (much to the jealous disdain of Ali’s alcoholic rival, played by Kristen Bell), it’s like God Herself was this kid’s agent.
“I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!” Bell protests. Later, Cher zings a weaker specimen by pointing out: “You’re throwing up everything but your memories!” Most backstage musicals are ridiculous, but this is ridiculous. Is there a love interest? Shyeah! Ali’s room mate,
the metro-sexual club bartender played by an overmatched blank named Cam Gigandet of The O.C., gets huffy when Ali stays out late with the zillionaire developer (Eric Dane) intent on buying the club for his own nefarious purposes. Which way will Ali’s heart take her?
Writer-director Steven Antin may have a heart as big as Iowa and California put together but he’s not much of a filmmaker. The perpetually unsteady camerawork (a choice, but a bad one), the suffocating claustrophobia induced by the preponderance of Chicago-inspired club interiors, the high-fructose corn syrup dis guised as dialogue: It’s a lot to overcome, which is where a movie musical’s musical numbers usually come in.
The Rob Marshall Chicago and Nine aesthetic rules the roost here. This means the theatrical scenic design, the bowler hats, the Weimar-era vibe, the finger-snaps and pelvic rotations all recall, recycle and ultimately reduce the memory of Bob Fosse, while the direction and editing hatchet the dance rhythms into teeny little bits of disconnected posing. The choreography itself is better: Co-choreographer Denise Faye has done wonderful work on various Broadway stages as a performer in Fosse shows and others. As for the actual stars, Aguilera sings her lungs out, but the songs are pretty awful. Cher sings her lungs out, too, in her imperious, frozen-upper-lip style, though not as often as Aguilera.
The whole movie amounts to an I-will-survive anthem.
Antin’s sister founded the real-life neo-burlesque L.A. troupe known as the Pussycat Dolls. Will sanitized burlesque sell on screen? Will interest in the acting chops (so-so) of Aguilera and the cosmetic rehab wonder that is Cher stoke the box office? Some questions are too vast to consider without benefit of opening-weekend grosses. The film’s inadvertent laughs start petering out around the two-thirds point, which is sad. But at its worst/best, Burlesque is a camp hoot the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time.