Burlesque Delivers Dancing and Underwear, But It Stumbles In Its Attempt to Seduce

Perhaps no one will be more excited about the new Cher-and-Christina Aguilera-starring musical romp, Burlesque, than the local clubs, like Teddy’s Room, who are starting to cash in on the resurgence in popularity of the vintage tease and dance shows. The new musical-almost comedy makes the bawdy, lingerie variety show palatable for the after-school carpool line, dropping cheeky humor and some very un-risqué risqué over the pounding beat of Christina Aguilera’s latest musical creations (with a couple of singing cameos by Cher).

What is remarkable about the film, is that despite its canned story and advertorial promotion of its stars’ music careers there’s still a scant bit of humor, mostly delivered through the wry, clenched teeth of Stanley Tucci (Easy A, The Lovely Bones), that at least makes the film bearable.

Tucci plays Sean, the gay dresser/backstage maestro lost in a sea of prissy, hard-bodied girls. He is the Pancho Villa to Cher’s Tess, the matron of the show whose unfettered (and unexplained) devotion to her burlesque house makes it seem as if she’s been at it since the 1920s. The set design and costuming digs deep into that era’s style, initially evoking a Berlin romance, with its flickering, yellow bulb sign, the doorman with eye shadow, and plenty of smoke (but isn’t smoking outlawed in Los Angeles bars these days?).

There’s promise in this throwback feel, as well as in the playful sexiness of burlesque itself, the tantalizing body humor that cuts through our contemporary taste for sincere and often graphic sex on screen. But the good things Tess has are undone (or in the context of the movie, perfected) with the arrival of Ali (Christina Aguilera).

Ali is a farm girl from Iowa who steals cash from the till of the downtrodden bar she works in to pay herself the money her gruff, mean-spirited boss has held from her, passing some cash to another older waitress to “buy that bike your boy is waiting for.” Be warned, Burlesque tells its story entirely in clichés, and it is so relentlessly contrived that you eventually stop to notice, forgiving the garbage dialogue and smarmy subplots. It helps that writer/director Steve Antin (“Troy” from The Goonies) knows to not let six or seven minutes go by without some shaking breasts and kicking thighs.

Ah, the dancing. That’s what we’re here for, right? Unfortunately, Burlesque can’t help but devolve into a two-hour promotional video for Christina Aguilera’s music. Sure the girl can sing. Sure the songs have bounce and flair, boom and bop, driven by the singer’s characteristic soulful phrasing that is injected with a jaw-dropping vocal virtuosity. But Aguilera’s pop is too produced, too brazen and in your face. It flushes out the little charm Burlesque had to start – its shadowy intrigue, it’s substitution of fishnets for stage masks.

While Aguilera’s music and style slowly take over, the story also loses its interest. Burlesque starts as a feel-good parable about a nice girl from Iowa whose grit and determination lead her to the stage of dreams. But then Twilight’s Cam Gigandet gets involved, playing the hunky bartender Jack who needs to dump his girl in New York to hook up with the hot-bodied dancer who is sleeping on his couch. (If you’re wondering how she got there, Aguilera’s Ali is robbed and has to leave her dingy hotel room, then shacking up with the hot bartender, of course.)

The love story is wildly earnest. A supposedly playful scene in which Jack finally makes his amorous intentions known to Ali by taking off all his clothes and strutting around the house with a box of cookies, covering his privates, not only makes you cringe, but it represents the moment when the movie finally casts away the true charm of burlesque for this more conventional sexual provocation. In the process Ali saves the club, but when Aguilera leads the final number in her leather Hooters shorts, screaming about her love of burlesque, you finally see what has gone wrong. Aguilera is an unbounded, exciting and sexy pop star, but she has a hard time being seductive.

Photo by: Stephen Vaughan