Directed by Steve Antin. Starring Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Cam Gigandet, Eric Dane, Julianne Hough, Kristen Bell, Peter Gallagher, Alan Cumming. (2010, PG-13, 116 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 3, 2010
Burlesque bumps and grinds. And then it continues to grind and grind and grind. This new musical leaves no cliché unturned as it struggles to find the heart of cabaret (that’s cabaret with both a small and big “C” – the stage genius of Bob Fosse is an evident if unfulfilled aspiration). The girls at the Burlesque Lounge on the Sunset Strip dance onstage in exotic underwear while lip-synching risqué numbers, but no clothing is removed. They may shake their moneymakers, but the concoction remains unstirred. In her screen debut, Aguilera stars as Ali, the orphaned Iowa waitress who ditches her job in the film’s opening sequence, belts out a few bars so we know she has some big pipes, straps on her platform pumps, and heads for the glittering lights of Hollywood. Those wishing for another camp touchstone like Showgirls will be disappointed: Writer/director Antin has none of Paul Verhoeven’s visual flair or tarty taste. Burlesque’s dialogue plods along predictably and the performance numbers are edited like a cut-and-paste mosaic. There is also no difference between the way the film looks and sounds when the performers are lip-synching and when they are supposedly singing for real: It all looks phony. Cher was a shrewd casting choice in terms of upping the film’s camp cred, but apart from her power ballad “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” (which is sure to become a signature part of her repertoire), the diva plays it straight as the club’s proprietor and den mother, Tess. Aguilera always grabs our attention with her powerful vocal abilities, but her acting skills won’t threaten any upcoming strivers. Still, that’s no reason to weigh down the narrative with a center section that is little more than half a dozen Aguilera music videos in a row. Burlesque is populated with a great many secondary characters, though they all come with even less backstory than little orphan Ali. Gigandet is an eyeliner-wearing but straight bartender who serves as Ali’s wan love interest. (He also sports the only naked tush in the movie.) Dane provides an even more colorless love interest, but his Marcus is rich and powerful and has ulterior motives for wanting to buy out Tess’ mortgage on the club. Gallagher plays Tess’ ex-husband, who has part ownership of the club, and Tucci is the stage manager and Tess’ loyal friend. Hough and Bell are a couple of dancers – one becomes conveniently pregnant, which opens up a spot for Ali in the ensemble, and the other becomes Ali’s nemesis. Cumming is the club’s emcee, and though he’s the only performer to project the Weimar vibe of Cabaret, his appearance in the film is painfully brief. As Burlesque ground along its obvious and well-worn path, my inner voice indeed shouted, “Take it off,” though my request was directed toward the projection booth rather than the dancers onstage.