Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Burlesque: Steve Antin

Written by Marni Grossman

We all know how expensive a college education can be these days, and perhaps it was with his three children in mind that Stanley Tucci agreed to appear in Steve Antin's Burlesque.

Or maybe he's just redecorating.

Whatever the reason, it couldn't have been a profound admiration for the writing or the plot. Because if we're judging by those standards—or, really, by most conventional film standards—Burlesque fails. Miserably.

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{mosimage width=200}We all know how expensive a college education can be these days, and perhaps it was with his three children in mind that Stanley Tucci agreed to appear in Steve Antin's Burlesque.

Or maybe he's just redecorating.

Whatever the reason, it couldn't have been a profound admiration for the writing or the plot. Because if we're judging by those standards—or, really, by most conventional film standards—Burlesque fails. Miserably.

There's a moment in Burlesque in which Tucci, referring to the film's protagonist, says, "That one there, she's beautiful on the inside too." How he managed to get through the line with a straight face is beyond me.

The plot, such as it is, is one you've seen a hundred times before. Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a small-town girl with a hardscrabble past and Hollywood dreams. She lives in a trailer park in an unnamed Midwestern city, and she works in a diner. But she's got a big heart and an even bigger voice and, five minutes into the first act, she bids adieu to her old life ("Loretta, I'm quittin") and heads off to Los Angeles.

Soon, Ali finds herself at Burlesque, the nightclub run by Tess, a tough-but-loving showbiz veteran. She starts out as a waitress, but she soon becomes a star.

There's some tepid romantic intrigue and a silly subplot about the club's financial troubles, but mostly the movie's a showcase for Aguilera's singing and Michael Kaplan's glitzy costumes.

Which is fine by me. The less dialogue, the better.

Because the Los Angeles Ali encounters isn't a living, breathing city: it's a soundstage. Suffused with the golden, otherworldly light of a romance novel cover, it's about as realistic as a laugh track sitcom. And the people Ali meets there aren't living, breathing human beings: they're stock characters from a poorly written soap opera.

Aguilera's acting can best be described as "serviceable." She's fine. Not good, not bad, but fine. Cam Gigandet, playing her love interest, is similarly vanilla. Meanwhile, Tucci's character, Sean, is essentially a retread of the role he played in The Devil Wears Prada. Only without even a hint of the biting wit. It's a part Tucci could have done in his sleep.

And in fact most of the actors in Burlesque are reduced to playing parodies of other, better roles. Peter Gallagher runs around with greasy hair and not much to do. A criminally underutilized Kristen Bell stomps around looking haughty. Alan Cumming dusts off his Tony award-winning leer from Cabaret to play Alexis, the club's emcee. Eric Dane does McSteamy lite, wooing Christina Aguilera's Ali with his patented smolder. And Cher? Cher plays herself, natch.

In the end though, none of that matters. You didn't go to see Burlesque because you wanted a gritty drama about the dark underbelly of Hollywood. You went because you wanted sparkly costumes and flashy dance numbers and Cher. And on those fronts, Burlesque delivers.

Cher may not be able turn back time, but she's certainly well maintained for a sexagenarian. And Aguilera is, of course, a prodigiously talented singer. There's glitter and glamour and a heaping dose of flashy choreography and, during the musical numbers, anyway, it's all good fun. While Burlesque runs a bit long, it's mostly an enjoyable ride. It's a confection. A frothy confection with a generous helping of saccharine and absolutely no nutritional value.

And though it has neither the outré high camp of Showgirls or the Oscar-polish of Chicago, it has its own small rewards. In an era when few mainstream films even pass the Bechdel test, an unabashedly female-centric movie is a rare thing.

That said, if you don't want to dish out the dough to see Burlesque in theaters, in a few months, rent it and pair it with Center Stage for a fabulous girls' night double feature.

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