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Movie Review: Burlesque (PG-13)

by Jared Peterson

Burlesque-PosterThere are at least two highly stylized, over-the-top train wrecks on movie screens this fall. One is called Unstoppable, and it’s about an actual train wreck. The other is Burlesque, a disaster movie all its own.

When Ali (Christina Aguilera) makes her way to LA from Iowa (one of several Midwestern states where starry-eyed showgirls are bred and branded), she is brimming with dreams of making it as, well, some kind of performer. Rejected again and again by stage shows that have filled their quota of hot, pop star types, she wanders the Sunset Strip and soon stumbles onto the Burlesque Lounge. In its smoky innards, scantily clad beauties bump and grind, saunter and sashay. Ali stares, slack-jawed, transfixed. “I wanna do that,” she says. She goes into plucky mode, pestering the club’s beleaguered proprietor Tess (played by pop icon Cher—or her model from Madame Tussauds; I couldn’t really tell) for a job. She moxies her way into a waitressing gig, then a spot in the dance troupe, where she runs afoul of the resident drunken diva, Nikki (Kristen Bell). When Nikki tries to sabotage one of the Ali’s numbers, Ali steps up to the plate by singing her own vocals, wowing audience and propelling her to center stage.

Burlesque is, as they say, a hot mess. From hackneyed plot points to clichéd sentiments to bland and leaden dialogue, it serves as a survey course in treacle and cheese. But like the proverbial car wreck, it’s difficult to look away. The mission of the filmmakers seems simple: Make a movie that stars Cher and Christina Aguilera. In that, director Steve Antin has succeeded, and with a twinkly-eyed enthusiasm that is inescapable, if hardly infectious. Burlesque is bad. But it is unabashedly, unapologetically what it is, and as such it is both hard to watch and hard to blame. No one’s really bad in it. In fact, the dialogue is often so horrendous that simply saying a line with a straight face counts as a small artistic victory. But there are some clever, “oh-snap!” quips sprinkled throughout. Aguilera is cute and appealing, and her assets—soulful singing, batting baby blues, shaking what God and Dr. Nussbaum gave her—are utilized to their fullest. And as Sean, a softer-edged and less swishy version of his character from The Devil Wears Prada, Stanley Tucci makes off with nearly every scene he’s in. He has many of Burlesque’s best lines, and arguably its worst (To Jack, praising Ali over his never-present fiancée: “She’s beautiful on the inside.”), all of which he effortlessly imbues with charm and, where available, actual meaning.

Burlesque might be redeemed as actual entertainment if it were shown, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, at midnight screenings (perhaps in a double bill with its cripplingly undignified cousin, Showgirls). There it could live out its life celebrated by those will who love it, loudly, for all its faults.

Burlesque is rated PG-13. It contains bushels of women’s undergarments, mostly on, but occasionally off, very lithe women doing very suggestive dances. At one point or another, both the male and female leads appear naked save for their strategically blocked Adam-and-Eve bits. Sex is not depicted, but its afterglow is. Characters drink for the fun of it; one demonstrates the intention of driving drunk. There is sporadic swearing, including one f-bomb. While there’s nothing here that cable TV viewers won’t see on any given night, parents may want to steer their teens to stay away.

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