It’s been a while since I’ve seen a stinker as obvious as “Burlesque.” As a colleague and I noted afterward, it made us long for something as coherent and restrained as “Showgirls.” Or “Glitter.”
Not that there’s all that much difference. “Burlesque” is like “Showgirls” without the redemptively gratuitous sex and nudity. Or “42nd Street” without the originality.
The films stars Christina Aguilera as Ali, a small-town girl in Iowa who ditches her waitress job in the empty diner and boards a one-way bus to Hollywood. Not, however, before she locks the diner door, pulls the shades, drops a coin in the junkebox and busts out a full-throated version of Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” while the opening credits roll.
A word about Aguilera: She seems to flatter herself that she is an heir to James’ tradition; besides this song, she has a version of James’ signature song, “At Last,” floating around on YouTube. But the woman has no soul or emotional connection to her material. Aguilera singing “At Last” is a little like Michael Bolton singing “Nessun Dorma.” Or a trained bear dancing ballet. It’s interesting to see the bear dance – but you’ll never confuse it with Baryshnikov.
In this film, written and directed by Steve Antin, Aguilera’s Ali has all the usual signposts of plucky ambition: no father, a mother who died when she was 7. She’s apparently been a waitress in Iowa since then – until she flees for Sunset Boulevard and the welcoming arms of Hollywood’s only burlesque club.
Yes, and it’s run by Cher and it owes a ton of money on a balloon mortgage payment. And it has a lead performer (Kristen Bell) who drinks too much – and another who just found out she’s pregnant. Plenty of room for an ambitious young out-of-towner like Ali to worm her way to the top: first as a waitress, then as a member of the kick line, finally as a featured performer – who then goes on to break out of the club’s format of having performers lip-synch songs, by belting out a song in her own voice when the d.j. equipment fails mid-act.
Cher, who looks like her face last had working musculature circa 1990, plays the one-time star and club owner. She still steps out and takes the lead on the occasional number, though when she does, it makes it awfully easy to mistake this burlesque club for a drag establishment. The club, meanwhile, seems to offer its own nightly version of “Cabaret,” because it’s drenched in entertainment styles that went out of fashion before television was a household appliance.
Stanley Tucci is Cher’s gay, wise-cracking costume guy, stage manager and best friend. Peter Gallagher is Cher’s ex-husband and now business partner, whose sole function appears to be sounding the alarm every 15 minutes or so that the club is about to go belly-up financially.
Cam Gigandet is the bartender who befriends Ali and even gives her a place to stay when her hotel room is ransacked. He registers to her as gay to start, reveals that he is in fact straight, then spends the rest of the movie alternately mooning over Ali, bedding Ali, losing Ali and rewinning Ali. His only competition is Eric Dane, as the millionaire developer who wants to buy the club so he can build a high-rise office tower.
The script is free of credible friction or jeopardy. The club shows look like post-Bob Fosse knock-offs. There’s nary a surprise to be had, except for Aguilera’s apparent misconception that she has acting talent. And that’s not really so surprising.
Thanks to “Burlesque,” we now have the answer to the question “Which film ended the film careers of both Christina Aguilera and Cher?” So all is not for naught.