REVIEW: “Burlesque” (***)

Posted by · 7:52 am · November 28th, 2010

(We don’t usually post reviews after the US release, but this one got snarled up in my hard drive earlier this week and I didn’t want to waste it. I’ve noticed a number of readers posting thoughts on the film in yesterday’s Cinejabber post, so look on this as your “Tell us what you thought of Burlesque'” post into the bargain.)

“There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure,” a music-critic friend once told me. “Just songs that work and songs that don’t. And any song that works is a pleasure.” He may have been talking about pop music (and justifying the expense spent on some rather dubious concert tickets), but the sentiment is just as true of cinema: there are enough wholly joyless bad films out there that one needn’t feel remorse for liking those that sparkle a little.

Or a lot, as in the case of Steven Antin’s sweetly stupid and gleefully tatty backstage musical “Burlesque,” a kind of cinematic party horn that unfurls for nearly two full hours, pausing only occasionally for wheezily abridged plot extension. Heroically spry performances adjoin rancidly inept ones, peppery one-liners encircle bat-brained narrative turns, even the music veers from choice cabaret to hoary album offcuts – and this gurning, flailing whole is held together with the irrepressibly sincere let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm of a high-school drama teacher given a dream budget. It’s hard to shake the suspicion that Antin is just out of shot throughout, wielding a glue gun and a spare bag of sequins.

The story, such as it is, is so crustily old the film hardly bothers to tell it at all. Do we ever ever actually see Christina Aguilera’s small-town naïf Ali step off the Greyhound into sunny LA, or do we just assume we did? Is there any discernible affection between her and fetchingly guylinered bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet), or do we just imagine it because those are the rules? Are their names even Ali and Jack, or have we just mentally assigned them because that’s what any jobbing screenwriter would do?

We don’t care about their poxy on-off romance, of course, and neither does the film, which is far more preoccupied with Ali’s swift, unlikely showbiz ascent at the financially embattled burlesque club run, with oddly maternal wantonness, by Cher. (She has a character name, too, but who remembers what it is: it’s Cher, for crying out loud.) “Nobody comes here to hear the girls sing,” Cher says flatly, only to be annoyingly contradicted (along with the entire creative principle of burlesque, but that’s a niggle) as Ali, an unskilled, style-challenged dancer who can nonetheless sing a lot like Christina Aguilera, pulls in the punters with her epic octave-bending.

“I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!” shrieks boozy rival dancer Nikki (Kristen Bell) in the film’s—and possibly the year’s—single greatest line. She can at least take some consolation in the fact that Aguilera is comprehensively upstaged in her own big-screen arrival: alert only to her musical numbers and coming to this wide-eyed ingénue role approximately 10 years too late (could this vehicle not have been tailored for Rihanna?), she proves as rigidly unlikeable a presence on screen as on record, though a lot less proficient.

It’s hard not to wish “Burlesque” had a funnier, spunkier leading lady, but happily, Cher spots the problem and offers double helpings of winking, sashaying wit to make up for it. Entering proceedings as the purring showpiece of the film’s most sharply executed musical number, she goes on to locate nested vulnerability and on-the-ropes fight in the script’s addled pointers, socks a splendidly ridiculous Diane Warren power ballad and even manages to straight-facedly sell the line, “I held your head over the toilet while you vomited up everything but your memories.” (Not a strict transcription: I was laughing too heartily to take notes.) Best Supporting Actress campaigns have been built on less.

She’s abetted throughout by Stanley Tucci, who, following similarly invaluable recent turns opposite Meryl Streep and Patricia Clarkson, is morphing into a kind of chemical reactant for middle-aged actresses. But if they, alongside brilliant costumer Michael Kaplan (who’s having a ball here, without losing sight of the necessary homemade aesthetic), are the most high-end benefactors of “Burlesque,” the less adept but equally game efforts of Antin shouldn’t be entirely dismissed.

Cribbing shamelessly from Bob Fosse and Rob Marshall alike in his staging and keeping the screen busy, if not exactly pretty, at all times, he keeps this chintzy parade float, well, floating so cheerfully one’s tempted to ignore its glassy lead and creepy sexual politics. (Apparently Jack must apologize for having a fiancée, while Ali is free to romp around with slimy contractors in exchange for Christian Louboutin shoes. Good to know.) “Show me how you burlesque,” Aguilera exhorts in the closing number, and while I’m not exactly sure what “burlesque” means as a verb, “Burlesque” certainly does.

[Images: Screen Gems]

→ 25 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

25 responses so far

  • 1 11-28-2010 at 8:07 am

    Chris said...

    Hey Guy,

    It was actually Kristen Bell’s character Nicki, who had the line “I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs”.

    I loved this movie, sure it’s a recycled story we have seen a hundred times already. And it isn’t a masterpiece by a means, it’s just takes you on a fun ride.

    I actually must say I thought Christina Aguilera, was much better then a lot of the critics have been saying. She had great comedic timing, and her musical numbers were fantastic. She can sing her face off. I really enjoyed this film a great deal, and I can’t wait to see it again.

  • 2 11-28-2010 at 8:39 am

    JJ1 said...

    Thank God. I was SURE I’d be one of few on this site who had fun watching this. haha

    I maintain that Michael Kaplan (3-times up for CGA) could slide in, here. And some of the songs seem good enough for Best Song contention.

  • 3 11-28-2010 at 8:40 am

    JJ1 said...

    And yes, I think Aguilera was more adept at acting skills than I would have guessed and/or what the critics said.

  • 4 11-28-2010 at 8:43 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Chris: Oops. Goes to show why I shouldn’t watch and review films on a couple of pints. Thanks for the correction.

    JJ1: I added Kaplan in last week’s predictions, actually. Just for fun.

  • 5 11-28-2010 at 8:49 am

    JJ1 said...

    Guy: haha. Yeah, while it’s knee-jerkingly funny to ponder, I actually think it could happen.

  • 6 11-28-2010 at 9:00 am

    Chris said...

    Guy – No problem, glad I could be of some help by pointing it out.

    I so enjoyed this movie so much, I wonder if a film like “Nine”, which was badly received and did poorly at the box-office could get nominations. I think “Burlesque” which I imagine will have pretty good box-office numbers, could manage to get a few nominations in the tech categories.

  • 7 11-28-2010 at 9:37 am

    m1 said...

    This movie’s surprisingly not-terrible reception should be proof as not to immediately write something off as a Razzie contender.

  • 8 11-28-2010 at 11:34 am

    Kyle said...

    Ehh, I dunno 33% on RT should probably count as a terrible reception.

  • 9 11-28-2010 at 1:59 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Oh, it’s bad, lol. But I was also highly, highly entertained; would see it again on dvd, etc..

  • 10 11-28-2010 at 3:41 pm

    Alfredo said...

    Burlesque could totally get in with one or two tech nominations…need I remind folks that movies like Norbit, Click, and Hollow Man received nominations??

  • 11 11-28-2010 at 4:24 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    Oh, it’s still a Razzie contender. If a movie like this gets under 50%, they’ll lunge at it.

  • 12 11-28-2010 at 4:58 pm

    RJL said...

    After Black Swan, this is 2010’s movie I’m most looking forward to seeing. I love that “upstaged” line you’ve quoted but the clips I’ve seen on TV have Tucci, in one line, giving a nomination-worthy performance! Can’t remember the line, but it breaks me up each time I see the clip. I sense this movie was made to be a hoot and it is. Therefore, is it bad? Or is it successful?

  • 13 11-28-2010 at 5:10 pm

    MovieMan said...

    I personally hated the film, and would have rather watched the infinitely superior “Showgirls,” a film I quite like. Not even Cher could save this thing. Disastrous.

  • 14 11-28-2010 at 6:44 pm

    austin111 said...

    Sheesh, Guy.

  • 15 11-28-2010 at 7:19 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Sheesh nothing. :)

  • 16 11-28-2010 at 7:56 pm

    Chris said...

    At a time when you have all these extremely serious Oscar candidates vying for attention, sometimes it’s a welcome relief to watch a film and just be entertained from beginning to end. The whole point of movies, is to be taken into a world and just have fun.

    And for all of it’s imperfections it’s a lot more fun then a lot of the so called comedies that have been released as of recently.

  • 17 11-28-2010 at 8:24 pm

    mt said...

    This was a surprisingly entertaining movie. Christina did a great job and was actually a pretty competent actress. For my money, she is the best singer turned actress yet from her contemporaries that have tried it, though admittedly that might not be too hard to be. Anyway, it may have received crap reviews from critics (who, in my opinion, took it way more seriously than it takes itself) but it’s had amazing audience ratings, receiving an A- on CinemaScore and Yahoo Movies, and an 80% approval rating on Flixter. If Nine can get nominations, despite it’s lousy reviews, audience reception, and box office numbers, there’s no reason Burlesque can’t pick up a few tech and musical nods as well.

  • 18 11-28-2010 at 8:35 pm

    Glenn said...

    Hah, I loved reading this. It’s not out here until the new year, but I am anticipating it with baited breath. I have already listened to the soundtrack more times than I count.

    As for Christina, she made the smart move of making a musical as her first film. Even if the film turned out bad she’d always be able to fall back on the singing side of things to not come off completely inept, but it’s good to hear she’s not a disaster.

  • 19 11-29-2010 at 6:52 am

    greg said...

    Chris- I havent seen the film yet, but u askwhy the film couldnt be tailored to rihanna? it’s bc rihanna really cant sing. not the way christina can.

  • 20 11-29-2010 at 6:53 am

    greg said...

    oops i mean guy sorry

  • 21 11-29-2010 at 7:12 am

    Chris said...

    Christina’s voice is amazing, I understand where Guy was coming from, the role might be ten years too late. But she was wonderful in the role, and her musical numbers are fantastic.

    I can’t imagine anyone else playing that part but her, Christina’s voice puts these other pop stars to shame.

  • 22 11-29-2010 at 12:39 pm

    Rob said...

    I liked the movie despite knowing what I was watching was pretty awful through out as far as stories go. Christina Aguilera’s singing was spectacular, especially that amazing ballad she sang which was weirdly worked into the film. Her acting was actually not that bad considering that her character was very underwritten and unlikeable at that. Where’s the backstory? We know virtually nothing about her so why should we care about who she is or what she does? It would be interesting to see Aguilera take on a supporting role in a better written film that isn’t so much a vanity project.

  • 23 11-29-2010 at 1:47 pm

    m1 said...

    8-People were expecting MUCH worse. And that 49 on Metacritic is the same as Nine’s.

    Either way, the Razzies suck, so I’ll stop talking about this now.

  • 24 11-30-2010 at 4:06 am

    Leo said...

    I really think this could be Kaplan’s year. Seriously.

  • 25 11-30-2010 at 8:05 am

    Chris said...


    I am thankful to have someone else, who likes this film as much as I did. I don’t think we have to be apologetic for liking it, like some critics have been in their reviews. It’s a fun, entertaining film, and that’s why we go to the movies in the first place. I love this film, imperfections and all.