As unlikely as some may believe it to sound, watching "Burlesque" makes one long for its NC-17-rated forefather, 1995's "Showgirls," an overwrought, but technically sumptuous and undeniably entertaining camp classic. Having recently seen it again, the nudity-filled, Paul Verhoeven-directed Sin City saga is not nearly as bad as its original reception led people to believe. By contrast, the same claims probably won't be made about "Burlesque" fifteen years from now. Save for the novelty of seeing Cher (2003's "Stuck on You
") sing for the first time in a film, the picture is destined to remain terrible no matter what year it is.
The premise is so ancient it might as well be mummified. Aspiring twentysomething entertainer Ali Rose (Christina Aguilera) has no family to speak ofher mother died when she was seven, natchand the kind of dreams that her dusty, nowhere Iowa hometown can no longer withhold. With only a suitcase in her hand and a small wad of cash in her pocket, she books it to Los Angeles and stumbles upon the glitzy Burlesque Lounge. With hopes of one day making it to the stage to show off her dancing and singing skills, Ali wears down proprietor Tess (Cher) and nabs herself a job as a cocktail waitress. With real estate agent Marcus (Eric Dane), hired by Tess' ex-husband and co-owner Vince (Peter Gallagher), threatening to close the club and rebuild, Tess is in financial dire straits as she brainstorms on how to keep the business afloat. With hard-drinking head dancer Nikki (Kristen Bell) becoming increasingly unreliable and nice-girl Georgia (Julianne Hough) about to go on leave due to an unforeseen pregnancy, Tess seeks to find someone fresh to bring the crowds in. Finally her time to shine, Ali wows Tess and gay confidante Sean (Stanley Tucci) in the auditions by not only knowing all the different numbers, but having the sort of powerful voice that instantly turns the dancers' ritual of lip-syncing to classics obsolete. As Ali quickly claims the spotlight, she is faced with Nikki's cattiness and the pressure of two potential suitors, buff, eyeliner-wearing bartender/roommate Jack (Cam Gigandet) and the handsome, wealthy Marcus.
Written and directed by Steve Antin, a former actor of the '80s and '90s making his filmmaking debut, "Burlesque" is beyond dopey, interminably overlong, and as predictable as the onset of balmy temperatures in the summertime. The clichés flow as thick as molasses, while protagonist Ali Rose proves herself to be one of the most empty, selfish, unlikable screen heroines in quite some time. When her apartment is broken into and ransacked, Jack invites her to stay at his place out of the kindness of his heart. We know this not only because of his actions, but because he literally says aloud that he's "a giver...this is just what I do." When a few days turns into much longer and he asks Ali to contribute to the rent, she agrees and then promptly insists on taking his bedroom and makes him sleep on the couch. At work, Ali never hesitates to sink to Nikki's snotty level, making one wonder who the bad guy really is. As she grows in popularity as a performer, she becomes even more shallow, waltzing around in expensive new clothes and flashing every material possession she receives from Marcus. At some point, we at least expect Ali to have an epiphany about the unsavory person she has turned into, but it never comes; that's just who she is. Why should we care about this egotistical diva with, as Nikki describes them, "mutant lungs?"
Even the best of actors likely wouldn't be able to do much with Ali as she's written, so it's truly unfortunate that pop artist Christina Aguilera, in her amateurish big-screen debut, is called upon to anchor the flimsy enterprise. Aguilera has a good voice, certainly, but she too often confuses caterwauling for clean, controlled singing. The amount of increasingly wearisome runs she does in her vocals must be what keeps her in shape. When Aguilera isn't belting out interchangeable songs and actually has to play a character, she flounders enormously. There is no depth or charisma to her performance; Ali is a stuck-up, paperweight bore, and when she's offscreen are the only moments that stand a chance. As central love interest Jack (who has an out-of-town fiancée, of course), Cam Gigandet (2010's "Easy A
") is a fitting match in that he also is really bad. When Ali and Jack are forced into one-on-one conversations, it's like watching inexperienced ninth-grade drama students try to act for the first time. A montage of bed-set love scenes between them, interspersed with Aguilera performing a soppy ballad on stage, is so unimaginably cornball it turns into a laughing stock.
The saving grace of musicals with weak scripts ought to be the, well, music, but not here. Bland and pre-fab, all of Aguilera's burlesque numbers are forgettable slices of junky, flash-in-the-pan bubblegum pop junk. An early lip-syncing song and dance to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" manages to simultaneously plagiarize far superior scenes from 2001's "Moulin Rouge
" and 2002's "Chicago
," with waitressing Ali suddenly imagining herself performing on the stage. The lone bright spots are the two songs Cher performs, "Welcome to Burlesque" and the showstopping "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," which are a great deal better written and not so affectedly sung. Cher, the standout of the film, brings such soul and emotion to her every lyric that she wipes the floor with Aguilera and makes the viewer wish the film were told from Tess' point-of-view. Dramatically, the only scene that works is a heated confrontation between Tess and Nikki outside the Burlesque Lounge, bringing to the forefront the history these two characters share and the affection between them that has slowly wilted through the years. It's one of the other few moments that Aguilera doesn't appear in; leave it to Cher and the talented, playing-against-type Kristen Bell (2010's "You Again
") to temporarily brighten things up.
With the conclusion foregone and no rooting interest in Ali, "Burlesque" sluggishly crawls from one derivative subplot to another, sorting conflicts out in slow motion in between umpteenth scenes of scantily clad ladies gyrating around to monotonous music and choppy editing. You know your musical has failed when the best songs are the peripheral one playing in the background (i.e., "Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star; "Forever Young" by Alphaville; "I Melt with You" by Modern English; "Animals" by Neon Trees). Stanley Tucci (2009's "The Lovely Bones
") tries but doesn't totally prevail to bring dignity to resident gay character Sean; that the one same-sex relationship in the movie is between two men who aren't even sure of each other's names is offensively stereotypical. As flamboyant host Alexis, Alan Cumming (2005's "Son of the Mask
") is criminally underused. Did the bulk of his role hit the cutting room floor? A running story thread involves Jack passionately writing a song, so personal to him that he refuses to share it with Ali until he has perfected it. When we finally hear it at the end, sung by Ali, is it a tune of weighty themes, glorious melodies, and thought-provoking subject matter? No. It's a dime-a-dozen song called, no kidding, "Show Me How You Burlesque." Perhaps Jack should stick with bartending. "Burlesque" sounds ripe with promise until the opening shot, and then it's all downhill from there.