A few minutes before a screening of the diva-strewn dance movie Burlesque (Screen Gems) began, a woman sat down next to my friend and me and said something in Russian to her two kids, who had been holding her seat. About 20 minutes after the movie started, she leaned over to us and asked in slightly accented English, “Is this Harry Potter?”
Though that misinformed Russian lady may have been confused by what she saw on screen (why is Hermione wearing stripper heels?), the rest of the audience got precisely the movie that they had come to see: a campy, satisfying showcase for the impressively flashy vocal and sartorial stylings of Cher and Christina Aguilera. After Cher performed the soon-to-be adult-contemporary hit, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” the entire room broke into vigorous applause and screams of joy.
Wisely, director Steven Antin does not ask either woman to do much stretching in the acting department. Christina is cast as a savvy small-town girl Ali, who longs to make it as a singer and dancer in Los Angeles, while Cher is the aging burlesque queen and foul-mouthed club owner Tess. Cher has always been aware of the limits of her talent—as she said in a New York Times interview last weekend, “I have a very narrow range … I’ve never tried anything more than playing who I am.” Christina is also essentially playing a version of herself here, but she’s an easygoing presence during her speaking scenes and truly magnetic when she’s singing. This may seem like faint praise for her acting, but as my viewing companion, Willa Paskin of Vulture, pointed out, Christina’s contemporary Britney Spears was painfully wooden in Crossroads. Being yourself on screen is not as easy as it looks.
Beyond Tess and Ali’s fairly developed and sweet bond, the plot is pretty thin and occasionally nonsensical. Naturally, Tess takes Ali under her bedazzling wing and makes her into a burlesque star. She also fends off a blandly nefarious real estate developer (blandly nefarious Eric Dane) who wants to buy her club, demolish it, and turn it into a skyscraper. Meanwhile, Ali shields herself from a wannabe saboteur, fellow-dancer and alcoholic Nikki, played by a sadly underused Kristen Bell.
As a character, Nikki is particularly undercooked, which is a shame because Bell has shown real promise playing bitchy in the sadly cancelled TV show Party Down. For starters, Nikki seems to have a poor grasp of the passage of time. Late in the film, Nikki reminds Tess about how they built the club together and how galling it is that Ali gets to come in and steal Nikki’s thunder. Unless thirtysomething Nikki started dancing for sixtysomething Tess while still in diapers, the notion that they “built the club together” is absurd. However, Nikki does get the best line in the movie, when she says of Ali, “I will not be upstaged by a slut with mutant lungs!”
Ali also has a love interest, chiseled burlesque-club bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet), whose only memorable scene involves his naked body and a strategically placed box of cookies. There is also a delightful supporting turn by Stanley Tucci as Tess’ sidekick and Ali’s fairy godfather. That Tucci’s character is identical to the one he played in The Devil Wears Prada doesn’t really matter—you are thrilled see him again. Alan Cumming also makes a brief appearance as a sexually ambiguous host, who says things like, “Honey, I should wash your mouth out with Jägermeister!”
Save for a few zingers like Cummings’, the dialogue is saccharine and throwaway, but it would be foolish to expect Mamet-level patter from this sort of film. The enthralling dance numbers—flashy spectacles with feathers and bras made out of pearls and netting—and the combined sass levels of Cher and Christina Aguilera gloss over the movie’s weaknesses. Burlesque is unlikely to garner a new fan base for either pop star on this Thanksgiving weekend (good luck trying to convince dad to skip the Cowboys game to see this one), but it’s a worthwhile trifle for admirers of either icon.