By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Glitzy, campy, and unabashedly shallow, Burlesque is a contemporary musical drama with a dozen song-and-dance numbers, a let-me-entertain-you spirit, and absolutely no pretensions about what it all “means.”
It’s a style-over-substance successor to Flashdance, and might well have been titled Fleshdance. But although it embraces its movie-musical clichés as if they were farm fresh produce, and doesn’t try to hide the hoariness of its overly familiar showbiz plot, it also delivers the bouncy, mindless entertainment implied in the title alone without even trying for memorability or significance.
Burlesque is set in a near-bankrupt, neo-burlesque club on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles called the Burlesque Lounge, home of a musical revue that showcases uncomplicated eye and ear candy for its patrons.
Christina Aguilera makes her big-screen acting debut as Ali Rose, a plucky small-town girl from Iowa with a big-time voice from heaven who ventures to LA and gets a job as a waitress at the club, where she is befriended by the bartender (Cam Gigandet), the stage manager (Stanely Tucci), and the host (Alan Cumming), and is in immediate jealousy-fueled conflict with an unreliable performer played by Kristen Bell.
Cher plays Tess, the club’s owner and headliner, who’s desperate to ward off threatened bankruptcy and keep her cherished club open for business.
But what Ali wants to do is to sing at the club. And she gets her chance, impressing Tess with a surprising audition and getting hired as a full-time dancer. And they haven’t even heard her sing yet.
Once they do, she begins performing at the club and wowing the customers, helping return the Burlesque Lounge to its former glory and thus helping Tess stave off the efforts of a wealthy real estate developer (Eric Dane) to buy the place from her and tear it down in the name of progress, a transaction which Tess’s nervous ex-husband and current business partner (Peter Gallagher) is pushing for.
Debuting writer-director Steve Antin has concocted a razzle-dazzle amalgam of Chicago, Cabaret, Dreamgirls, and Sweet Charity, borrowing bits and pieces from each of them. And, really, as they say, is that so wrong?
His script seems intent on helping to bring back the naughty but not sleazy burlesque tradition of suggestive song-and-dance numbers performed by scantily clad but still clothed women.
The musical numbers are a mix of the old and the new (Aguilera performs eight of them, Cher two; pity there’s no double-icon duet), making up for in energy what they lack in variety.
Given the potential for tawdriness here, Antin’s script and style stay on the relatively tame and tasteful side, as the PG-13 rating indicates. The let’s-put-on-a-show innocence isn’t exactly front and center here, but it’s never completely out of the picture either, as the film celebrates in its own way the talent and perseverance of all gotta-sing-and-dance entertainers.
But it’s not textual complexity that Burlesque is selling. It’s the talents of Cher and Aguilera (the latter also serving as the film’s “executive music producer”) that the audience comes to see, and both of them deliver.
Aguilera’s voice is a force of nature, but you knew that going in. The revelation here is her on-screen naturalness in her virtual acting debut: she’s impressively assured in the a-star-is-born manner and not because the lines she’s been assigned are her best friends.
As for Oscar winner Cher (1987’s Moonstruck, remember?), she continues to be a powerful and appealing larger-than-life screen presence, her line readings unfailingly persuasive, even if her presentational signature number, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” is a shade too calculated as it falls short of its bring-down-the-house aspirations.
So we’ll belt out 2½ stars out of 4 for the guilty-pleasure musical Burlesque, in which Christina Aguilera grabs her fair Cher of the movie spotlight.