Taking a story as old as the hills and injecting some verve into it, gay director Steve Antin has made a musical that’s silly as heck but goes down palatably, especially when Cher is doing her inimitable thing.
Ali (Aguilera) is a small town girl from Iowa who flees to Los Angeles in hopes of making it big. But really, has anyone ever gone to L.A. in hopes of becoming a stenographer or a taxidermist? When she goes into the Burlesque Lounge one evening and sees the club’s girls in action, she decides she wants a gig there.
The club belongs to Tess (Cher), a former dancer who blows Ali off but eventually gives her a job as a waitress and lets her audition to be a dancer. When Tess realizes Ali can sing, she sees a possible way out of the financial hole she and the club are in.
As her career takes off, Ali is torn between two men: Marcus (Eric Dane), a developer looking to buy the club, and Jack (Cam Gigandet, third photo) a bartender at the lounge who she initially thinks is gay.
This is Antin’s first film as a director, and there’s only so much he can do with his own clichéd script. When the film ventures out into the real world, it can be mawkish, especially the central romance. There’s never really a question who Ali will wind up with.
When we’re back in the club, “Burlesque” is a guilty pleasure—colorful and engaging. The cast also includes Kristen Bell as Nikki, the lounge’s star before Ali shows up; Julianne Hough as a fellow performer; a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Alan Cumming cameo; and Stanley Tucci as Tess’ gay best friend.
Does Tucci have a bet with Colin Firth and James Franco to see who can do more gay roles? Regardless, he’s awfully good.
As a musical, ”Burlesque” is semi-successful. Many of the numbers are a bit too MTV slick, and others are edited oddly, but quite a few are on the money, especially the closing “Show Me How You Burlesque.”
Cher only has two songs, but she delivers on both. As she belts out “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” which could become a new anthem for her, the camera mostly lingers on her lived-in face.
“Burlesque” has its share of campy moments, but this isn’t a sheer campfest like “Showgirls.” In most movies of this ilk, the female cast would be at each other’s throats, but Anton clearly loves his two leading ladies.
The relationship that develops between Tess and Ali has a sweet, maternal feel. In probably the best moment of the entire movie, Tess helps Ali apply makeup after the other girls have gone to dinner without her.
Aguilera won’t become a major actress, but she holds her own with an appealing naiveté that suits the role. Clearly, she is a more adept singer, but she doesn’t embarrass herself at all. Somewhere, Britney Spears must be chain-smoking and hurling Moon Pie wrappers all around her trailer in a jealous rage.
Ultimately, the reason “Burlesque” works is Cher. She hasn’t been in a movie since “Stuck on You” seven years ago. She has the subtlety of a tsunami, but the scenes with her and virtually anyone else work, especially Tucci (bottom photo). She looks great, and the face is almost moving again, but best of all she is quick as ever with her delivery.
Our only real regret is that the two leading ladies never perform a number together.
The film has been compared to everything from “Coyote Ugly” to “Moulin Rouge” and probably falls somewhere in between. Anyone looking for Oscar fare should look elsewhere, but “Burlesque” knows who its target audience is and gives them just enough.
Jim Farmer is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and public relations professional specializing in film promotions. He is the director of the annual Out On Film and has been a theater and pop-culture critic for more than a dozen years.