Burlesque is a visually splendid musical brought down by a severe lack of originality. There isn’t a plot point, a character, a theme, a dance routine, or even a song style that hasn’t already been seen and heard in other musicals. Take, for example, the moment Christina Aguilera enters the titular club; on stage, a troupe of scantily-clad young women dance lewdly around Cher as she welcomes the audience with a song. She sings about the club. She sings about the girls. She points to the orchestra, which play right on the stage. Watching this, I thought of how good this scene could have been if it hadn’t already been done in Cabaret. It also seems as if the music and lyrics are a little too reminiscent of Kander and Ebb. Even the choreography feels like Joey Pizzi and Denise Faye peeked into the teacher’s edition of a Bob Fosse dancing textbook.
Aguilera plays Ali, a waitress from a middle-of-nowhere town who dreams of hitting it big as a singer and dancer. Determined to make something of herself, she buys a one-way bus ticket to Los Angeles. While job hunting in Hollywood, she happens upon The Burlesque Lounge, a glamorously lascivious nightclub run by the headliner, Tess (Cher). Although tough, Tess takes Ali under her wing; at the same time, Ali makes an enemy out of a temperamental and boozy performer named Nikki (Kristen Bell). Ali quickly lands a job as a cocktail waitress, and after a lot of coaxing and begging (aided by the convenient sudden pregnancy of one of the showgirls), she gets to take part in the show, which, at Tess’ insistence, consists of dancers lip synching to previously recorded songs. But when Nikki stops the music in a fit of jealousy, Ali lets loose a set of pipes the likes of which no one at The Burlesque Lounge – Tess least of all – has ever heard.
Intertwined with this is a subplot involving the failing financial state of the club, pitting Tess against her ex-husband, Vince (Peter Gallagher), whose sweaty skin, matted hair, and ruffled clothes give him the appearance of a man who hasn’t slept in at least three days. We also focus on a budding romance between Ali and a Burlesque bartender named Jack (Cam Gigandet), the latter offering his apartment as a safe haven after Ali’s place is robbed. They spend most of the first and second act playing coy with one another, until that fateful moment when Jack walks past Ali wearing nothing – although he does strategically cover himself with an open box of cookies. Their love is quickly threatened by the arrival of Marcus Gerber (Eric Dane), a suave, magnetic entrepreneur eager to tempt Ali with promises of becoming a star. He also has his eye on The Burlesque Lounge, primarily because that’s what’s expected of guys like him in movie musicals like this.
All the songs come to life within the context of the stage, each displaying a dreamy showbiz glitziness similar to the fantasy sequences in Rob Marshall’s Chicago. It’s great to look at, and yet it forces a certain degree of detachment, since, even within the scope of Hollywood outrageousness, it seems unlikely that such a club could ever exist there. Apart from that, no real effort is made to show us something we haven’t already seen before. Even Cher’s solo number is overwhelmingly contrived. Imagine it. It’s after hours. Everyone has gone home. She steps on stage and insists on rehearsing. She then sits on a lone chair, bathed in the glow of a spotlight while a power ballad crescendos to life. And yes, the prerecorded song on the CD just happens to accurately reflect her emotional state at that very moment. The song is called “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” and it was written by Diane Warren, known for ballads such as “Un-Break My Heart,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” and “There You’ll Be.”
I will give both the leads credit. I don’t need to say a lot about Cher; she has already established herself as an actress, and she has the Oscar to prove it. As for Aguilera, she marks her feature film debut with a decent, believable, entertaining performance – decent enough, in my opinion, to warrant opportunities for future film roles. And there’s no denying her soulful, resonant singing voice, one of the few decent ones belonging to an ex-Mouseketeer. Unfortunately, all the singing in the world can’t save a musical if there isn’t an engaging story, well developed characters, and some sense that the filmmakers are trying something new. Burlesque, while certainly pleasant on the eyes, is flat, uninspired, and lifeless.