Think of "Burlesque" as one ginormous music video theme party thrown by Christina Aguilera, with Cher in the house, plus boas, bustiers and dancing girls and about a thousand humongous Broadway-style showstoppers. Which is a far better way to consider "Burlesque" than thinking of it as a movie — there, words fail. (Their words, not mine. I'm a long way from finished here.)
But should you find yourself in the mood for Big Musical Numbers by the score rather than a film, there's a lot to like about "Burlesque." Anyone who's listened to Top 40 radio in the last decade has no doubt been blown away by Aguilera's powerful pipes and wide vocal range that puts her in Whitney Houston territory. She's pure pleasure to listen to, for a while. The singing-songwriting pop phenom is a cutting-edge maestro of the music video too. She was creating provocative pomp and circumstance extravaganzas long before Lady Gaga was saying "gaga." (OK, that might be a slight exaggeration.)
"Burlesque," then, is a safe place for Aguilera to show off her song and dance chops. And that she does, belting out bluesy songs left and right, many inspired by that smoldering torch queen Etta James, while bumping and grinding around the stage with other pretties for roughly two hours straight. Whew.
It's a visual feast of feathers and rhinestones and pearls that makes you want to use words like razzle-dazzle amazing when talking about costume designer Michael Kaplan. Shot with a gorgeous lushness by Bojan Bazelli ("Hairspray" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"), the entire world of "Burlesque" evokes an earlier, vaudevillian era. But it's not set way back then. A ghastly "Dancing With the Stars" line lets you know that "Burlesque" is taking place "now," as does the mega real estate development that's putting the old L.A. club's fate on the line.
Writer-director Steven Antin, making his feature film debut, has borrowed the oldest story in the Hollywood book. Young girl from Iowa or somewhere in the American middle — so she's blond — comes to Tinseltown to find fame and fortune. First she will face hard times, then find a big-city cheese to woo her (Eric Dane's Marcus), a sweet Kentucky farm boy to maybe love her ( Cam Gigandet's Jack), and an aging diva (Cher's Tess) who will take her under her wing. And when she finally gets her shot at the big time — why gosh, that girl can sing.
The film begins back in the heartland with Aguilera's little orphan Ali taking cash from the register in the diner, just enough to cover what she's owed. But before she packs up and heads to the bus depot, there's that stage in the corner of the diner that beckons.…
Once in L.A, Ali hits the streets looking for work and ends up on the Sunset Strip, where the neon Burlesque sign calls her in from the night. "Is this a strip club?" she asks, blinking those baby blues at the guy in the ticket booth, played by Alan Cumming. To wit he answers that the only pole in here is Natasha (or Svetlana, or something equally cringe-worthy). Before you know it, Ali's chatting up that hunky Kentucky wonder who happens to bartend at the club, grabbing a tray and serving drinks, and vowing to convince Tess that she ought to be on the stage.
The filmmaker is apparently not only into borrowing plots, but recycling too since so many lines get reused like: "don't call me Ma'am" (that's Tess), "don't touch my stuff!" (that's Kristen Bell's Nikki, the young starlet who drinks too much, is always late, has a bad attitude and is about to be replaced by Ali), and "that's just the kind of friend I am" (Jack and Ali do multiple readings of that one, clearly a keeper). It's a shame because if you've ever seen "Moonstruck," "Silkwood" or "Mask," to name a few, you know that Cher can act, something she's never pressed to do here. Meanwhile, it will take more than "Burlesque" to know whether Aguilera will ever be able to make the transition.
Now when it comes to Stanley Tucci, it's another story. Truthfully I can't remember anything he says, though there was some warning about an expiration date on milk, or maybe that was love, but God bless him, that man can read a phone book and make you feel the pathos. As Tess' main confidant and best friend, stage manager Sean, he's tangy and tart and the only one you'd want to take home (though possibly Jack too, but just because he's so pretty).
On the story front, things unfold exactly as you would guess, not one surprise squeezed in anywhere no matter how hard you look. But with Aguilera and Cher center stage, there shouldn't have been any vocal issues to contend with. And yet…
As much as I love the seductive low rumble that Cher still commands (and I will pay good money to see her in her latest Final Concert Tour, of which I think there have been three thus far), and while I'll take a jolt of Aguilera in the morning over Red Bull every time, any world-class singer knows you don't keep the volume blasting and the beat rocking hard the whole time.
It is a tip they should have shared with their director — one that might have led him to add shadings and nuance, a quiet ballad here and there, a moment or two with no spangle-y things to distract you. But no, "Burlesque" is top-heavy from start to finish. Maybe that's what you do when you have nothing new to say.