Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Burlesque" is Such a Guilty Pleasure

Let's get one thing out of the way first. "Burlesque" is a bad film. It's a corny old story about a girl from a small town in Iowa who comes to Los Angeles in search of her dreams. In this case, the dream is becoming a burlesque performer, after the girl wanders into a club and becomes enamored with what she sees on stage. Of course, after overcoming various obstacles and digressions, the girl becomes a star, chooses the poor songwriter over the real estate tycoon, and manages to save the club from financial ruin at the very last minute. You've seen this all before, and done better. But that said, I haven't had more fun watching a movie in a long while.

Christina Aguilera plays Ali, the girl from Iowa. Aguilera tries, but she's not much of an actress, and her scenes with her primary love interest Jack (Cam Gigandet), are hokey and endless. But when you put Christina Aguilera on a stage, with a microphone, she does what she does best, which is sing her guts out and make us love her for it. The best sequences in "Burlesque" are the actual burlesque performances, full of flash and dazzle and peekaboo sexiness in just the right amounts. They're campy, but so much more vibrant and engaging than the inert posing on display in "Nine" or the chaotic visual overload of "Moulin Rouge." It's made clear from the start that the performers in "Burlesque" are enjoying themselves and want to be on stage, and that makes all the difference.

This is a fantasy, of course. The realities of this kind of lifestyle are not explored in any detail, and the usual seedy underbelly beneath the glitz and glamor is noticeably missing. Instead, the burlesque club exists in a kind of idealized world free of sexual predation and moral judgments. The girl who has to leave the show due to an unplanned pregnancy goes off to be happily married. Even the villain of the piece, a businessman named Marcus (Eric Dane) who is trying to buy the club, never engages in any remotely threatening behavior. The club itself is owned and run by Tess, a world-weary but still fabulous woman of mature years, played by Cher. It has to be said that Cher often looks artificially preserved to the point where we can practically see the formaldehyde fumes, but she gamely does her best to serve as the mentor figure and den mother to her girls, and even hauls herself up on stage for two numbers to remind us that her pipes are still in good working order.

There's so much talent in this movie, that as bad as the material is, it can't seem to help but be entertaining. For every dull scene of Aguilera flirting stiffly with Gigandet, there she is in a Swarovski crystal bustier two minutes later, setting the stage on fire. For every contrived moment where Cher has to worry over the future of the club, we get a few lines of delicious banter between her and Stanley Tucci, playing her long-suffering and very gay club manager. I did a double take when I realized that the ticket taker was Alan Cumming and the stage manager was Glynn Turman. They're both sorely underused, along with Kristen Bell, who plays Aguilera's comically hostile rival at the club. I haven't made up my mind about Cam Gigandet yet, who undeniably has some charisma, but suffers for being in a role that has all the depth of floral wallpaper.

I think "Burlesque" would have been more entertaining if it consisted only of the burlesque sequences, which are lavishly produced and feature a mix of old standbys like "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and original songs for a consistently rousing soundtrack. I'm astonished as to how not a single song from the film got any recognition from the Oscars, after the miserable showing the Best Song category had this year. They snubbed Cher and Christina Aguilera performances in favor of Gwyneth Paltrow? Really? But then, it may have been difficult for Academy members to overlook the fact that "Burlesque" is really just a vehicle for Christina Aguilera to play movie star, and the story is so thin that it would have been better suited to a concept album and a corresponding series of music videos. Come to think of it, that's practically what this is.

Still, there's no denying the entertainment value of "Burlesque" for a certain audience, which includes me. I'm a fan of both Cher and Aguilera, so I relished the chance to see them work together. And for them, I was willing to put up with more nonsense than I suspect many other viewers would. But how could I resist? The movie is so happy and vulgar and toothsome and wholesome and idealistic all at the same time. It doesn't make a lick of sense, and how could it? But I suppose that's part of the fantasy, and we all need a silly feel-good movie like "Burlesque" every now and then.

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