Could this musical get any more camp if it tried? Despite the disappointing nature of Burlesque, it is far more enjoyable than the recent big budget musical misfire Nine. As a vehicle to launch the acting career of pop star Christina Aguilera, Burlesque is certainly a much better choice than Mariah Carey's debut the awful Glitter and Britney Spears’ dreadful Crossroads. As executive producer, Aguilera has surrounded herself with some top-notch talent both on both sides of the camera.
Written and directed by Steve Antin, best known as the creator of the Pussycat Dolls, Burlesque is a succession of clichés that borrows heavily from musical dramas like Cabaret, Chicago, Showgirls, Coyote Ugly, and even the Busby Berkeley films of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Christina Aguilera makes her film debut as Ali, a girl from a small town in Iowa, who comes to LA seeking fame and fortune as a singer. She lands a gig as a waitress at the Burlesque Lounge, a low rent nightclub on Sunset Boulevard that offers lip-synced showtunes and a touch of risqué routines. The joint is run by the tough former showgirl Tess (Cher, in her first film role for nearly a decade) and her husband Vince (Peter Gallagher). But the business is in trouble due to mounting debts. But somehow, Ali manages to help Tess turn the place around by (gasp!) actually singing the songs live on stage and drawing in the crowds.
There is also the rocky romance with Jack (Twilight’s Cam Gigandet) the cute bartender/songwriter who writes songs that are never quite finished. There is also some bitchy All About Eve-style backstage rivalry between Ali, the newcomer, and Nikki (Kristen Bell), the veteran star of the show who is jealous of Ali’s rise to fame.
The characters are basically stereotypes, but both Cher and Aguilera carry off their roles with aplomb. Strangely enough, the film doesn’t offer the two divas a show-stopping duet.
Although Cher plays her role with conviction, her face is practically immovable as the result of cosmetic surgery, and she appears to have only one expression throughout. However, she gets to belt out a couple of numbers throughout the film.
Aguilera actually has a natural screen presence and charm that suggests this will not be the last time we see her on screen. She brings a wonderful mix of the provocative and innocence to her performance. And she is given enough musical numbers to showcase her powerful voice.
Stanley Tucci camps it up wonderfully as Sean, Tess’s long-time confidante and stage manager, a role not dissimilar to the one he played in The Devil Wears Prada. Alan Cumming is wasted in a small and underdeveloped role as the gender-bending host Alexis.
The song and dance numbers are well performed, but the rapid editing sometimes works against their cohesion and energy. The choreography lacks the pizzazz that Bob Fosse would have brought to the material. While Antin keeps the camera steady during the dance routines he resorts to handheld camerawork for the dramatic scenes in Tess’s small backstage office, which seems completely unnecessary. The musical numbers are performed with gusto by the game cast, but cannot disguise clichéd, predictable nature of the plot. Many in the preview audience howled with derision at the many clumsy clichés and occasionally clunky dialogue.