The trouble with Burlesque is, it either needed to be a little bit better, or a whole lot worse. The sheer volume of quality performers involved raised hopes that, in spite of its old-as-the-hills premise, it would entertain; when the wretched reviews started trickling in, our expectations recalibrated to longing for a high-camp PG-13 Showgirls. But it's not terrible enough to cross the "so bad it's good" demarcation. It's just kind of long and predictable, and (when people aren't singing and dancing) pretty dull.
Belting songstress Christina Aguilera makes her big-screen debut (as actress and executive producer) playing Ali, a small-town girl (aren't they always?) who leaves her dead-end waitressing job in Iowa to pursue her music dreams in L.A. She strikes out in auditions all over town (we presume--we never actually see her in any of them, just wandering the streets with listings) before stumbling into a burlesque club on the Sunset Strip, which is run by Tess (Cher) and features Nikki (Kristen Bell) and a pack of scantily clad, lip-syncing dancers. Ali bats her eyes at bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet--seriously, whatever happened to stage names?) and gets a job, first as a waitress, then as a dancer. And then, wouldn't you know it, Nikki's too drunk to perform, so Tess puts Ali on in her place, and when Nikki tries to sabotage her new rival by turning off the music, scrappy little Ali sings her heart out and becomes a star. (Spoiler alert? Oh, like that outcome wasn't obvious from the jump.)
As in the old movies that it so transparently apes, the plot is merely a refrigerator to tape the musical numbers to. But does the plot have to be this wheezy? There's the All About Eve backstage rivalry stuff, there's a love triangle, there's the Coyote Ugly -style Jack-is-a-songwriter-but-he-doesn't-share-his-songs angle (no prizes for guessing the outcome on that one), hell, there's even evil bankers who are going to foreclose on the club. Tess and Ali bond over a make-up application session, giving us a mother/daughter dynamic; the attempts at comedy, meanwhile are plenty strained (the roommate negotiation and Jack's little seduction are both painful to watch). The glacially-paced picture (119 long minutes) grinds into a third act that turns into a steady stream of flat, boilerplate scenes--Nikki and Tess fight, Jack and Ali fight, Tess and loyal Sean (Stanley Tucci) fight. Conflict does not necessarily equal drama.
The logic holes are plentiful--after Ali edges Nikki out, the former star isn't glimpsed in any of her numbers, but continues to snip at her in the dressing room, where she apparently just... hangs out?--and the dialogue, hew boy. Here's just a few of the prize winners:
Ali: Thank you, Tess, you're not gonna regret this!
Tess: I'm so gonna regret this!
Jack: Life is about the choices you make.
Jack: I never should have let you walk out that door.
Sean: What's Ali short for?
Sean: Well, Alice... welcome to Wonderland.
Tucci is slumming here, doing a barely-considered revamp of his turn in The Devil Wears Prada--but he knows it, and he's clearly enjoying himself. That said, even he can't sell that "welcome to Wonderland" crap. But he's not the only one having a good time; as boring as her role is (and as snooze-inducing as her big ballad is), Cher's comic timing is razor sharp; "No, can you hum a few bars?" is the oldest joke in the book, but she zings it. Eric Dane is a good villain, and Alan Cumming, though woefully underused (seriously, you forget he's even in the movie), is charming when they give him something to do. (Only Peter Gallagher has a more thankless role.) Kristen Bell isn't given much in the way of an acting challenge, and the necessary competitive coiffure coloration dynamic requires her to go brunette instead of sporting her lovely blonde locks, but she's fun to watch, and let's face it: there's worse things in this world than watching Bell cavorting around in her funny undies.
As for Aguilera, well, she just fine--charismatic and likable, if a little bland. The picture is really at its best when it just lets her sing and dance; her first song is about as contrived and predictable as you can imagine, but her forceful pipes still pack a punch. (It's a far more successful scene than her dance audition, which is edited to the point of incomprehensibility--all we want to do is see her move, which they just can't manage to show us.) Watching her performances--particularly the most burlesque-y of the bunch, an inventive and sexy fan dance--and you see how she could star in a great movie musical. But Burlesque ain't it.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is glossy and clean throughout, with skin tones natural and black levels free of crushing--something of a surprise, considering how much of the film is played dark nightclub interiors. Color reproduction is sharp as well, particularly in the club's blazing hot neons and the amber hues of the small-town prologue.
The 5.1 track is a mixed bag. On one hand, the music sounds amazing--immersion is terrific, putting us right into the club's audience, and the songs are well-spread throughout the soundstage (dig those novelty effects in the surround channels during the fan dance), while the LFE channel pushes the pounding bass of the musical numbers beautifully. On the other hand, the dialogue is modulated entirely too low; during Ali's audition, Sean and Tess are all but inaudible. Most of the movie sounds fine, but have your remote handy for the talky scenes. (Then again, the less dialogue you hear...)
The disc also includes French 5.1 and English Audio Descriptive Service tracks, as well as English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and commentary subtitles.
Writer/director Steven Antin's Audio Commentary is energetic, if a little boring; he does a lot of narrating rather than commenting, and some of it isn't terribly insightful. He also seems to be under the impression that he's made a genuinely good movie, bless his heart. Next up is "The Burlesque Jukebox," offering "full and uncut performances from the film"--six numbers in all (17:09 total). They're ogly fun--and this Bell fan certainly appreciated a more substantial look at "Long John Blues"--while one of them (a wonderful performance of "That's Life") doubles as a deleted scene for the altogether underutilized Cumming.
The Alternate Opening (6:32) basically just breaks apart the pieces of the credit sequence, moving the awkward small-town dialogue scene that opens the picture to after the first song--a negligible change, though certainly one that gets it off to a marginally stronger start--and then playing her exodus to Hollywood chronologically. The Blooper Reel (5:10) is cute, if a little forced.
Burlesque has a fine cast and occasional memorable moments, but they're too few and far between to necessitate seeking the picture out. Christina and Cher provide plenty of diva power, and the supporting players do the best they can, while the musical numbers are sexy and well-choreographed (if somewhat mechanical). But that script... goodness gracious.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.