Christina Aguilera and Cher share the screen in this movie about a young gal from Iowa who moves to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a famous singer. The formula is always present in this kitschy piece of self-aware camp, but Cher and Aguilera bring enough sequined soul to the equation that we're always entertained.
Starring: Christina Aguilera, Cher, Cam Gigandet, Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell
Rating: Two and a half stars out of five
Honestly. I had no idea burlesque could be used as a verb. Yet, thanks to this Steve Antin musical starring Cher and Christina Aguilera as fleshy attractions at a Sunset Strip nightclub, my understanding of its usage has spread out like a pair of fishnet-clad thighs straddling a cabaret chair.
Not only is the final number in this kitschy spectacular a skittish dance track called "Show Me How You Burlesque," but the dictionary reveals burlesque isn't just a word for a show containing striptease, it's also a word that connotes satire. It means "to mock something serious by imitating it in an incongruous way."
That said, Burlesque clearly lives up to its title: The whole movie seems to mock the very genre that gives it form, by reducing the American dream to the success or failure of a giggling gin joint.
We've seen this reduction before, in Paul Verhoeven's brilliantly subversive and entirely misunderstood ode to plastic culture, Showgirls. But where Verhoeven could barely mask his contempt for Las Vegas vapidity with his story of a small-town gal who dreams of becoming a Vegas dancer, director-writer Antin demonstrates a genuine affection for the hayseed innocence of Busby Berkeley movies, and the idea that you can fix just about any crisis with a little song and dance -- and a really big show!
Berkeley chose to illustrate this get-up-and-go ethos with children (Babes in Arms) -- wide-eyed wee people who believed a show in a barn could bring about world peace. Antin goes for a grown-up take, and delivers Christina Aguilera as an innocent from Iowa who ends up in Los Angeles looking for a new life.
Ali (Aguilera) is a good person. We know this, because in the opening scene in Iowa, she gives her hard-earned cash to a colleague so she can buy her kid a bike. Wow. Nice people like Ali are usually eaten up and spit out by the big city, especially the smog-covered sprawl of Lalaland, but Ali has talents. She can sing and dance and whip her hair faster than Willow Smith.
Pounding the pavement in search of the ideal starting position, Ali ends up landing a job at the nicest little retro-titillation bar in town: Burlesque. Miraculously located on Sunset Boulevard in a building owned by club founder and former dancer, Tess (Cher), Burlesque -- the club -- may be the biggest leap of faith the movie asks for: It's an exotic dance parlour in Los Angeles that doesn't show boobies.
We're supposed to believe burlesque -- the old-fashioned art of erotic dance without poles or plasticized cleavage -- is still relevant enough in a sea of Internet porn to remain a going concern.
Certainly, burlesque acts have experienced a revival of late, thanks to Bettie Page wannabes who like dressing up in vintage pasties, but this establishment features a whole chorus line and a live band -- even though it has few customers.
Like the screenwriters, Tess is a dreamer. She believes her Burlesque can transcend the current appetite for cheaper, more vulgar thrills, but time is running out on her mortgage payments.
She's in jeopardy of losing her precious family nest to a smarmy real-estate developer. The only thing that could save her would seem to be a solid-gold attraction with dance moves and "mutant lungs" to match.
You don't need to know the rest. It's all by-the-numbers plot development as Ali absorbs elements from All About Eve and Showgirls in her quest to make it big, fall in love, and remain true to her soul.
It's entirely cheesy and predictable, and easy to dismiss as baseline fluff, yet because Antin does burlesque his way through this cliched exercise, he finds some tongue-in-cheek redemption.
When Cher sits down for her solo number about never giving up, the director and the star don't waste much time trying to sell spontaneity. Cher simply plops down on the de rigueur club chair, finds the spotlight and starts to howl.
Most of the dance numbers pull up to the bumper with the same wink and giggle, and thanks to the well-crafted supporting performances from the likes of Kristen Bell (who dips into drunken camp with her Eve Harrington clone) and Cam Gigandet (who delivers every clunky line with a twinkle in his eye), Antin's whimsically satirical piece finds the right tone.
The movie also has the biggest voice in the biz, thanks to Aguilera, who proves she's got lots of spunk - in addition to her other obvious assets - which makes her roundly sympathetic and compelling.
If only the music had been memorable, or even a worthy showcase for Aguilera's talents, Burlesque could have been a sparkling nod to nostalgia with tongue-in-cheek sophistication. As it is, it's a decent romantic comedy and a fun chick flick, but a song-and-dance disappointment.