You don’t go into a movie starring Christina Aguilera (in her debut role) and Cher (in her first in a decade), expecting high art; low expectations might be affirmed when you note writer-director Steven Antin’s previous work, as one of the writers behind Chasing Papi and the director of Glass House: The Good Mother, a direct-to-video sequel to the Leelee Sobieski thriller.
But Burlesque isn’t just a bad movie, it’s the worst kind of a bad movie: a tediously conventional slog that denies us even the smallest pleasures that we might take from such an experience.
The setup and opening scenes promise a PG-13 version of Showgirls, but the rest of the film can’t even deliver along those lines; there’s no camp, no over-the-top acting, no outrageousness, hell, no burlesque. Oblivious to the laughable material, which lies limp on the screen, the workmanlike direction seems to want us to take this thing seriously.
Christina Aguilera is Ali, the small-town Iowa girl with wide eyes and big dreams who quits her job at the local diner and takes off for the city. In Los Angeles, she happens by the Burlesque Lounge, attracted by a poster of Coco, the black girl who apparently headlines the club and is seen throughout the film but never utters a word.
Ali is entranced (why, we never learn) by the scantily clad women dancing on stage, lip-synching to classics and being leered at by a rarely-seen audience; spurned in her efforts to audition for a dancing gig, she starts waiting tables and soon works her way up the ladder.
That’s the Showgirls angle, which was outdated by the height of the 1930s musical craze. As if this wasn’t conventional enough, we’re force-fed another storyline wrought with cliché: Tess (Cher), the owner of the club, is behind on her payments and (gasp!) might lose the club unless she can raise enough money; or should she sell to creepy real estate mogul Marcus (Eric Dane)?
If you think a romantic subplot between Ali and hunky bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) could provide some originality, you may be disappointed. A talented supporting cast fills out roles defined by stereotype, including the bitch (Kristen Bell), the gay friend (Stanley Tucci), and the other gay friend (Alan Cumming); Peter Gallagher is wasted in a potentially interesting role as Tess’s sympathetic ex-husband.
The first half of Burlesque is surprisingly tolerable, climaxed by a truly showstopping Christina Aguilera rendition of Etta James’ Tough Lover. After that, in-between all the plot idiocy, every last number becomes a music video, providing nothing that you might find in an actual burlesque club, and everything you might find at a Christina Aguilera concert. The film loses its one calling card, and quickly devolves into an atrociously-edited (there is no dancing, only the illusion of dancing) MTV mess.
There was something vaguely unsettling about an underdressed Cher belting out If I Could Turn Back Time to a group of horny sailors back in 1989; 20 years later, her face and figure artificially preserved, we feel similar vibes in Burlesque. It’s a delicate topic; she still looks great, having not wandered into Mae West Sextette territory…yet.
But the film does her no favors. Her first number here, the Welcome to Burlesque ensemble, is bland and unmemorable, and her second outright bombs: a power ballad, You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me is belted out to an empty room, crude sentimentality hanging in the air. And that’s it; two numbers, and the rest of the song-and-dance is all Aguilera as Cher is left to deal with the I-have-to-raise-money-to-save-my-club nonsense.
Ultimately, Burlesque delivers unmemorable musical numbers that riff on Cabaret and Chicago and a consolidation of the same storyline we find in every one of these pictures, from Flashdance to Showgirls to Glitter. At nearly two hours long it’s truly interminable, and it plays things too “safe”, never becoming bad enough to be entertaining. It’s the worst thing a bad movie can do.