Burlesque is like a sequin. It’s shimmery. It looks best from a distance. It’s flat and kind of cheap. And it will likely end up stuck to the bottom of your shoe after a rough night at the club.
The movie’s tagline, ”It takes a legend to make a star,” is clearly more directed at the casting, which includes Cher and Christina Aguilera, than at the film itself. Throw a little Madonna into the soundtrack — which they do — and you have this year’s contribution to making the yuletide gay.
Ali (Aguilera), short for Alice, finds herself down the rabbit hole when she leaves Iowa on a bus bound for Los Angeles. After walking around (who walks in Los Angeles?) looking for a job, she stumbles on the Burlesque Lounge, a dark and seedy bar with titillating dancers lip syncing to some of the crooning classics. Only Tess (Cher) actually sings her numbers, but after slinging drinks, practicing the dance moves in between rounds, and staring longingly at the stage, Ali gets her big break and revitalizes the club with her amazing voice and hot dance moves.
In doing so, she captures the heart of a hot bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet), with whom she happens to live even though he has a fiancée, and crosses the current headliner Nikki (Kristen Bell). Ali also catches the eye of real estate mogul Marcus (Eric Dane), desperately trying to buy the insolvent club. It’s an awful lot of plot to cram into the space between big musical numbers.
The main problem with Burlesque is that it’s so damn derivative. The first time Ali sings is exactly like Renee Zellweger’s first notes standing at the back of the bar in Chicago. Mimicking Moulin Rouge, one of the first performances is “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” And Stanley Tucci keeps popping up in the dressing room rambling on about clothes as he did in The Devil Wears Prada. The film also brings to mind Glitter and Showgirls, because Burlesque is poised to join those films in the train wreck hall of fame.
The only slightly lesser problem is the ridiculous dialogue written by Steve Antin, who can also be held accountable for the direction. From the plot points to the delivery of the lines, Burlesque is off-key. What’s supposed to be romantic is corny, what’s supposed to be serious is laughable, and what’s supposed to be the big climactic finish has about as much fizz as day-old champagne.
The one thing that can’t be denied or mocked is the vocal talent of Aguilera and Cher. While Cher, the best drag queen to ever live, only gets two numbers, she works the hell out of them. You can almost hear the backbeat that’s going to be added to the track to make it a dance remix hit. And while Aguilera’s set-ups for some of the songs are incredibly contrived, she’s got a set of pipes that don’t quit.
In most staged musicals, you wonder why the characters are singing when they could just be speaking. In Burlesque, you just wish they’d skip the dialogue and stick to the songs. Aguilera is clearly not an actor, her Mickey Mouse Club days notwithstanding, and she fumbles through most of Ali’s ups and downs with a barely plausible performance. Cher, on the other hand, deserves one-third of an accolade, which is also the percentage of her face that’s still capable of moving. It’s hard to tell what emotion she’s trying to convey with her expressionless forehead and eyes, which is why the background music is so helpful.
To be fair, not everything is horrible in the film. Gigandet and Dane provide excellent eye candy as way-too-pretty men interested in Ali. Neither really has any character depth to explore, but they get credit for delivering some of the worst lines in the film with straight faces. Alan Cumming is completely wasted as an androgynous doorman, yet another derivation, this one from Cabaret. Finally, as the dark-haired vixen Nikki, Bell does get some bitchy one-liners. Regrettably, none are witty enough to be remembered or repeated.
In the end, Burlesque does very little to distinguish itself from your run-of-the-mill drag show that you can see for a $7 cover charge. It takes itself too seriously to be enjoyable, and it’s not bad enough to really wallow in its own misery. It has a couple of ladies who do their best to shine, but the curtain has to come down at some point. For Burlesque, it’s about two hours too late.