Burlesque is a tricky animal. It starts seeming like a Chicago-style musical where the music is all diegetic or in the protagonist’s head. We see our main character Alice, played by Christina Aguilera, closing down the restaurant she works in while singing an upbeat song. It’s fine, if a little bland. Aguilera’s wig looks a little awkward, but it’s not the worst. We’re kept going at a breakneck clip that takes Alice from wherever this is (the Midwest?) out to California where she drops in on a performance at a burlesque club run by Tess (Cher). The nature of the musical changes slightly in this moment as we’re treated to a fairly classic table-setting number where Tess introduces each dancer and character of the club with their name and a kicky little line while they do about a four second dance display. Are we about to see frothy musical that’s as fun as it is sloppy?
Well, yes, and also no.The potential was there in that moment. The first time I saw this, I thought, “this all looks a little janky, but I’m down to see some bouncy performances from Cher and Christina.” It doesn’t take long for Burlesque to leave this almost entirely behind. Director Steve Antin seems to have changed his mind about the film quite a bit during filming. Neither fully a comedy nor fully a drama or even a combination of the two, it’s also not quite a musical and it’s not even really burlesque. Alice stiltedly goofballs her way into an audition where she performs a “wagon-wheel watusi” and gets the job as a dancer! And also a lip-sync artist? It’s confusing what was really going on at this club. They have a full live band AND a DJ. No one actually sings, they lip-sync and dance. I don’t mind this, but off the bat I’m wondering: where’s the burlesque exactly?
This is a question you’ll ask a bunch as the movie goes on. Alice sings one night once the sound system fucks up (I think?) and she’s just in leather lingerie and thigh-highs. Nothing really comes off in any burlesque-y way. Anyway, once everyone gets a load of her pipes, Alice quickly ascends the ranks of the show and they tool it entirely around her. There’s one number she does that’s pretty much burlesque called “I’m A Good Girl” and it’s pretty entertaining. It’s the musical from the beginning peeking up for a moment.
This meteoric rise to the top of a tiny LA club comes at a price: the dethroning of Nikki, a brunette dancer played by an utterly wasted Kristin Bell. Bell does her best with the wisp of a character she’s provided and the hollow shell that passes for her subplot. Nikki is supposed to be a mean, jaded, trashed queen bee, but they never get a fix on what happened, her relationship with virtually anyone, or even what substances she’s abusing. It might be booze, it might be pills, it’s unclear. She’s the bad kid from any given after school special: a specter to be invoked, but never really seen.
The rest of the movie is a break-neck down-hill run. Alice gets with the “hunky” bartender (who she thought was gay in a deeply confusing narrative choice) who has a fiance he maybe/maybe not breaks up with over the phone. Alice is momentarily tempted by a sleazy business man played by a blandly handsome whoever from Grey’s Anatomy. Cher’s club owner Tess struggles limply with her ex husband and bills to be paid. Stanley Tucci must’ve been sharing tired looks with Bell over craft services coffee because he’s there giving it his Tucciest best and the most they give him is a weak C-plot and perennial emotional support position to Cher. He gets one scene with a wedding DJ that he sells the ever-living shit out of, but it’s for naught. He’s playing precisely the same character as he did in Devil Wears Prada with all the pathos ripped away from him and an inferior cast. You can almost hear him complaining to Meryl Streep and Patricia Clarkson on a three-way call.
The movie ends with a contrivance too stupid to go into that solves a conflict so stake-less that it’s hard to care. While this movie certainly has lots to laugh at, what it lacks is real conflict or any sort of bite. It’s fluff without much else happening and it features some of the most wooden performances you’re ever likely to see. There’s a strip-tease involving a box of cookies and a pair of french doors and it’s boring. You’ll laugh, but you’ll be wishing it were giving you something a little more. I enjoy watching it, if you can believe that. There’s a charm to how inept it is and it’s certainly memorable. It’s just not… it’s not good.
To wash down this questionable confection, we drank what does down in history as one of my favorite cocktails we’ve ever made: Cher Madness. It’s so good. Assemble your typical mojito ingredients (white rum, lime juice, simple syrup, mint) and throw in some frozen cherries and lemon juice. Mix together with crushed ice in a blender and enjoy the brilliantly magenta-red libation. It’s a little sweet, a little tart, and surprisingly complex. It’s as gay as this movie wishes it could be. We enjoyed this delicious drink with a batch of Tucci Smoochies, where are just brown-eyed Susans with that same magenta-red coloring added to the cookie dough. They’re lots of fun.
Incidentally, this movie is best enjoyed as harmless fluff you watch when you’re hungover. So, maybe you should gather some friends, assemble a pitcher of Cher Madnesses, have a great night together, and then recover with the movie that inspired it all. Worse things can happen to you.