All gristle and no sizzle, Burlesque is a candy box of nutrition-free delights that'll rot out the teeth of sugar-lovers but will leave a bitter aftertaste for more sensitive viewers. Ostensibly a series of Christina Aguilera music videos separated by a pantomime of the hoariest clichés from Depression-era backstage musicals, the movie is unabashedly, joyously bad, a pleasure so guilty it ought to air during MSNBC's weekend "Lockup" marathons.
The flick is so deliberately retrograde it inspires a bit of ink-stained newsroom poetry straight out of a vintage Variety headline:
Gal from podunk displays spunk, meets an L.A bohunk, together they bring the funk; too bad their movie stunk.
Aquilera is all sass and chipmunk-cheeked exuberance as Ali, a slightly used ingénue fresh off the bus from Iowa who lands in Hollywood and somehow manages to not stumble over a bum, a used latte cup or a tattoo parlor. Instead she arrives at the doorstop of a slightly tatty but still proud burlesque house, which is to say a strip club with delusions of grandeur, though this is surely not the kind of joint that Vince Neil would be caught dead in.
However, it is the kind of joint where top hats, cane and bejeweled bustier are treated as holy relics, and the patron saint of this decadent dump is Tess, played by the ageless Cher, who looks like she's been filmed through cheesecloth, the better to conceal her chemically frozen upper lip. Her club's in serious danger of folding, likely because the girls almost never actually strip, just bounce around in lingerie, lip-synching like an endless Pussy Cat Dolls' routine. It's not until a technical error stops the taped music and forces Ali to improv, that anyone notices she has the brassy pipes of a certified diva. In outrage, Kristen Bell, as Ali's bitchy, boozed-up rival, huffs, "I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!"
Cagey old pro that she is, Cher at least has the smarts to know she's in a stinker and acts accordingly, though no one forwarded the memo to the rest of the cast. Since apparently no actual gay actors would take the part, Stanley Tucci assumes the role of Cher's dresser, confidant and world-weary voice of reason, essentially reprising his work in The Devil Wears Prada. You can cry on his shoulder as long as you don't ruin his shirt. With one gay BFF firmly in place, this makes Alan Cumming redundant, and he's reduced to a curiously brief cameo as the sarcastic doorman, pulling his best Joel Grey impression. The disposable male romantic foils are played by a lean, muscled cipher named Cam Gigandet, and his older, richer competitor is Eric Dane, basically the same dude plus or minus 10 years.
Will Ali choose the soulful bartender with untapped talent, or the slick, deep-pocketed real estate mogul with a plan to replace the club with a condo tower? Will you care after nearly two hours?
Peek-a-boo gets old after awhile, and Burlesque never really delivers the dirty goods, and can't even be bothered to give us a good old fashioned hair-pulling cat fight. Enjoyable in bursts, the fun is pretty well exhausted by the third act, when the picture just lays there like a virgin on prom night. It's camp alright: prison camp.
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