Steve Antin’s Burlesque is so chock-full of clichés that it’s impossible to take seriously. I mean that in a good way. By abandoning original storytelling and opting for pure cheese, the film invites audiences to laugh at its uninspired melodrama. Fans of ribald fare like Chicago and Cabaret will appreciate how Antin and his cast imbue the on-screen singing with coy eroticism. While Burlesque’s unsure tone grows tiresome — the film can’t decide whether it wants to pay homage or be a gentle satire — brassy one-liners and anachronistic pop culture references ultimately distract from its tonal shortcomings. Indeed, those willing to give Antin the benefit of the doubt may find themselves, rather unexpectedly, having a good time.
Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a Midwestern girl with dreams of showbiz success. Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, she becomes a waitress at The Burlesque Lounge, a nightclub where scantily clad women dance and lip sync. Two nightclub employees take a liking to Ali. The first is Jack (Cam Gigandet), a hunky bartender/musician who even lets her crash on his couch. Next up is Sean (Stanley Tucci), the club’s droll stage manager who recognizes Ali’s potential. Tess (Cher), the club’s proprietor, follows Sean’s advice and grants Ali a spot on stage. Fellow dancer Nikki (Kristen Bell) is jealous, and when she attempts to sabotage her rival, Ali’s soulful voice helps her rise to the occasion. With a new star in tow, Tess ignores her long-suffering partner Vince (Peter Gallagher), who wants to sell the club to a sleazy real estate developer. Ali may save the club from financial ruin, but she must first handle Jack’s not-so-subtle advances.
It doesn’t take long for Antin to let audiences know just how inauthentic he intends Burlesque to be. Before Ali heads to LA, there’s a preview of Ali’s singing in a rundown diner, her vocal histrionics having the quality of an ultra-polished studio performance. The incongruity between what is seen and what is heard creates disengagement from the story, so the actors portray hollow stereotypes instead of well-rounded characters. As Tess, Cher is the most comfortable with camp. Quips from the Oscar-winning actress have pitch-perfect timing, and she has considerable chemistry with Tucci, a natural for this kind of role. When Cher sings “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” there’s a winking acknowledgment of her place in Hollywood. She could sing the song in 1990 or 2020 and it’d have the same resonance.
The younger cast members, unfortunately, are less successful than their older counterparts. Aguilera is a talented singer, but she lacks wit or energy as an actress. Her scenes with Gigandet’s Jack are clear low points. Neither performer knows how to handle the material, and when Antin introduces visual gags reminiscent of Austin Powers, the ensuing awkwardness nearly derails the on-screen romance. Kristen Bell can be engaging, but here she’s painfully miscast as the de facto villain. Rather than develop Nikki’s jealousy, Antin is content to let nasty insults and a black wig define the character. An over-the-top delivery could have saved her performance, but Bell and the other twenty-something actors lack the confidence of veterans like Cher.
Poor acting notwithstanding, Burlesque’s numerous musical numbers are the real highlight. Aguilera and other dancers perform with grace and energy, and their scenes are like a cross between Chicago and a Pussycat Dolls music video. Since the distinctive vocal styles of Aguilera and Cher overshadow the hooks, no number really stands out, so the visuals are more engaging than the songs themselves. As the editing gets increasingly frantic, the costumes become more risqué, reaching a point where Aguilera only has ostrich feathers to hide her body. And in the tradition of Hollywood musicals, the movie culminates with an eye-popping number that jettisons reality in favor of spectacle.
There is a dated aspect to Burlesque that’s often baffling. With no reference to current musicians or modern technology, it wouldn’t surprise me if the script were in development for nearly a decade. The soundtrack features music from the likes of Marilyn Manson and Squirrel Nut Zippers, two relics from the 90s that feel out of place for a 2010 release. Despite these anachronisms, Steve Antin justifies Burlesque’s existence late in the movie. Tess has a big speech where she passionately defends her club and, by proxy, the stupidly splashy musical Cher is starring in. If you happen to agree with her, then perhaps this movie is right for you.