Burlesque (United States, 2010)

November 25, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Burlesque Poster

At first glance, Burlesque appears to be a mostly de-sleazed remake of Showgirls, but perhaps that's a little on the cruel side. Unlike Showgirls, which was start-to-finish unpleasant despite all the nudity and campiness, Burlesque is sporadically entertaining, although not always for the reasons writer/director Steve Antin intends. The movie plays like a parody of those country-girl-makes-good-in-the-big-city dramas, with plenty of PG-13 eye candy thrown in as condiments. There's a little of Xanadu here, meaning that the film has the potential to endure a long life as a cult classic in some circles after it has been laughed off multiplex screens.

For some reason, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has become home to an annual big budget motion picture musical - Chicago, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd, Nine all arrived during that window, each with Oscar aspirations (some realized, some not). Now along comes Burlesque, the runt of the litter. Perhaps the biggest question about this production is how much of the seemingly awful plotting and dialogue is intentionally that way. Antin's resume is not sufficient to make a determination of whether he's just a really bad screenwriter and equally hamfisted director or whether he's attempting something sly and subversive. Many of the scenes are performed with too much earnestness for anyone to accept them as serious drama, but one never knows. However, even accepting Burlesque as pure, subtle satire, the viewer encounters a problem: it's too long to work. This kind of lampooning works best in short, controlled bursts. 90 minutes is difficult to achieve, but even the best filmmakers can't keep it up for two hours.

Burlesque is a vanity project for Christina Aguilera. No one's going to debate that she's sexy as hell and can belt out a song with the best of them but, as good as she is as a singer and dancer, that's how bad she is as an actress. She has zero emotional range and delivers lines with the wrong inflections and emphasis. Her performance provokes a "wow" reaction because it's not often that the star of a movie is this bad. Her portrayal has the unintentional side-effect of making everyone else in the movie seem Oscar-worthy, even though the ageless Cher is phoning in her part and neither Eric Dane nor Cam Gigandet is known as a top-flight thespian. Meanwhile, Alan Cumming is channeling Joel Gray, Kristen Bell is channeling Sean Young, and Stanley Tucci is channeling money into his bank account.

The story postulates how small town girl Ali (Aguilera), a singer and dancer, comes to Los Angeles to make it big. In this case, "big" is relative, since the pinnacle of Ali's aspirations is headlining a burlesque act in a club appropriately named "The Burlesque Lounge." The moment Ali walks through the door, she is captivated by the atmosphere of the place and, when her pleas for an audition with the owner, Tess (Cher), fall on deaf ears, she manages to be hired as a waitress. That puts her in a perfect position to strut her stuff when one of the dancers becomes indisposed due to a lack of contraception. The usual subplots flourish in the background. Real estate mogul Marcus (Eric Dane) wants to buy the bankrupt club for his own nefarious purposes. Good guy bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) invites Ali to crash at his pad, but their relationship remains platonic since he has a long-distance fiancé. And alcoholic Nikki (Kristen Bell) has a hissy fit when Tess replaces her with "the new girl."

It's hard to find a line of dialogue that isn't (a) a cliché, (b) unintentionally hilarious, or (c) both. Aguilera's ineptitude with her spoken lines add to the fun. This is one of those movies that would improve immensely if employed as the centerpiece of a drinking game. No one would ever see the end credits because even the most stalwart drinker would have passed out by then.

There's some enjoyment to be appropriated from the musical numbers, which are lavishly mounted and staged (although, curiously, some of the editing is clumsy). These feature a lot of "naughty" peeks of flesh, but no real nudity (the only example of that is when Cam Gigandet bares his buttocks). Aguilera is captivating when she isn't required to fake emotion or deliver dialogue, and she's surrounded by professional dancers who know what they're doing. Cher is provided with two songs, one of which is superfluous. It's mystifying how the filmmakers missed a chance for an Aguilera/Cher duet, but maybe there was an ego issue. Like Xanadu, Burlesque may exist more as a means of selling soundtrack albums than as a movie in its own right.

Assigning a rating to Burlesque is an inexact process. Viewed from a detached, objective perspective, this might be among 2010's worst. It is poorly assembled with egregious flaws in almost every aspect of movie-making. Christina Aguilera should earn her Razzie nomination. On the other hand, the production is enjoyable in a way that only a cheesy misfire can be. A small group of viewers will find in Burlesque a gem to treasure for years to come. It's a bad movie lover's wet dream. For the average multiplex stalker, however, it exists somewhere between inconsequential and a waste of time, so that's where I'll peg it.

Burlesque (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2010-11-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1