Movie Review: Burlesque
By Matthew Huntley
December 3, 2010
Going into Burlesque, I was hoping for trashy fun. After all, that's what the ads promise, what with the glitz, the glamour and the gaudy costumes, not to mention the timeless story of a Midwestern girl running off to the big city to pursue a career in show business. This was never meant to be a masterpiece (obviously), but perhaps it could have possessed the energy, sizzle and cheeky self-awareness to work as cheap entertainment. That, also, wasn't meant to be.
It’s not that Burlesque takes itself too seriously or anything, and it’s not overwhelmingly bad like the similarly themed and now infamous Showgirls, but it’s far from good, or even entertaining. Watching this movie, there’s no way of getting around the simple facts that the performances are mediocre, the dialogue is laughable and the story is thin and inconsequential. You can’t analyze it beyond that. It’s just a sub-par musical that doesn’t go anywhere fun or exciting. What I hoped for was a more extreme reaction to it, preferably one that was unexpectedly surprised by how well made it was. I also would have settled for being mortified by its awfulness. At least those two responses would have made it more fun to write about. As it is, it’s just average bad.
The movie starts out fast and gets right into it. Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a blonde, hard-working waitress from Iowa who has an undiscovered talent for singing and dancing. It’s hard to believe that such a beautiful and shapely young woman could be working in a dusty old diner, but never mind. Ali takes all her money and buys a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, where she dreams of becoming a singer-dancer. The editing of the opening number, which inter-cuts between Ali performing privately in the empty restaurant and a group of girls dancing in a club, suggests she’s always wanted star in a burlesque show, but she really just stumbles onto it while walking L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard.
At the club, she sees the owner, Tess (Cher), perform with her girls on stage and immediately falls in love with the world of burlesque. Until she can get an audition, she insists to Jack (Cam Gigandet), the eyeliner-wearing bartender, that she be the new waitress, which gives her the perfect opportunity to study the dancers’ moves up close. Eventually, she wins over Tess and her assistant (Stanley Tucci), and then the audience, to become the latest overnight sensation. As luck would have it, Tess and her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) are on the verge of losing the club unless they can come up with two mortgage payments. It’s either that or sell the club to a suspiciously charming businessman (Eric Dane).
There are other subplots to speak of, like Ali having to stay with Jack and wondering if a romance is blossoming between them; or the drama that ensues from Ali’s jealous rival (Kristen Bell). But none of these are fresh or involving. Despite the movie’s flashiness and relatively catchy song and dance numbers, I kept waiting for something more interesting to grab my attention. The conflicts are stale and routine and I’m not convinced writer-director Steven Antin had an agenda beyond just showing us the inter-workings of a burlesque club, which isn’t all that intriguing to begin with. He didn’t have to tell a story that was excessively deep or insightful, but at least he could have written a more affecting screenplay.
As talented a singer as she is, Christina Aguilera is not an actress, or at least not yet. Maybe with the right material she could sink her teeth into a more substantial role, but here she comes across as an amateur. Cher still has presence, as does Tucci, but they must know they’re above this material. Did something draw them to this project besides a paycheck?
In the end, there’s just not a whole lot to say about Burlesque, other than it’s mediocre. For a movie about a subject that’s supposed to be so provocative and bawdy, it lacks the panache to hook us in and make us care about anything. Our first desire would be for it to exceed our expectations, but if we can’t get that, at least it could offer us some trashy fun. Burlesque is trashy, but not very fun.