There’s a devoted breed of optimistic movie fan that hopes in his or her heart of hearts that every “Skyline” will be another “Star Wars” or that every “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” will be another “Harry Potter.” And then there’s the kind who lines up on opening day of “Glitter,” praying that the lightning that gave us “Showgirls” will strike twice.
It’s that latter breed that will no doubt find themselves most let down by “Burlesque,” a movie that promised to be a two-car diva pileup but winds up being just a leaden missed opportunity. As one critic who caught an early screening confided, “It’s not the next ‘Showgirls’…but it might be the new ‘Coyote Ugly.’” And now that I’ve seen “Burlesque” for myself, I’m in the awkward position of having the defend the honor of “Coyote Ugly.”
“Burlesque” lets us know right off the bat that it’s going to deliver a string of show-biz movie clichés by introducing us to Christina Aguilera’s Ali, a small-town waitress with (wait for it) A Dream. In no time, she’s shaken off the dust of her Iowa hamlet, rented a dumpy Hollywood Blvd. apartment, and wandered into Burlesque, a nightclub where the girls wear PG-13 outfits and lipsynch to music while they strut about in varying levels of sequins and innuendo.
Center stage is Tess (Cher), who owns the place and sings a song called “Welcome to Burlesque,” the first of not one, not two, but three compositions explaining to the audience what they’ve come to see. It’s as if “Oklahoma!” decided to pause every 30 minutes to explain that the film is taking place just north of Texas.
That “Welcome to Burlesque” number is also one of the earliest hints that writer-director Steve Antin has worn out his DVD of “Cabaret.” Opening number in a nightclub that welcomes the audience? Check. Men wearing bowlers and guyliner? Check. Fosse-esque chair dance? Check. Editing between Aguilera singing a soulful ballad and scenes of her lolling about in bed with her new beau, à la “Maybe This Time”? Check. A role for Alan Cumming, who won a Tony for the Broadway “Cabaret” revival? Check, check, and cash that check.
But Antin is no Bob Fosse. He’s not even Debbie Allen, particularly since the choreographed numbers are edited so choppily that you never get to see a full 5-6-7-8 without a cutaway. Can Aguilera, or Kristen Bell (as a drunken diva forced out of the spotlight), actually perform these burlesque numbers? Only the editor knows for sure.
With the dance numbers zipping by, “Burlesque” tries to coast on Aguilera’s singing voice, which gets trotted out periodically and becomes a plot point – Ali can sing live, and that makes her a star, particularly since Tess is worried about losing the club to the bank and blah blah blah. But here’s the thing about Aguilera’s singing, whether you marvel at her lung power or recoil from how hard she’s working it – this is a voice that you stand and admire at a distance, from behind the velvet rope, and not one that takes you in and allows you to empathize with the singer. As such, it winds up becoming a wall that stands between the viewers and the heroine with whom we’re supposed to relate at some level.
Antin puts all of the musical numbers on the stage of the club, which is fine if – as in “Chicago" – they all sound like something that would fit into that specific context. But when Cher belts out her Diane Warren–penned I’m-still-standing ballad “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” or Aguilera puts a gardenia in her hair for “Bound to You” (for the aforementioned romantic intercutting sequence), neither of those songs have anything to do with shake-and-shimmy that we see in all of the other burlesque numbers. It seems inconceivable that performers of this specific brand of theatricality would grind the show to a halt for this kind of Oscar-friendly vocalizing.
Not that most of the elements of “Burlesque” stand up to much scrutiny – the men are stuck with cardboard roles, with “Twilight” co-star Cam Gigandet as the hunky bartender/frustrated composer, Eric Dane as the not-all-bad real estate mogul with designs on both the club and Ali, and Stanley Tucci reviving his gay-male-Eve-Arden shtick from “The Devil Wears Prada.” And how does Julianne Hough’s dancer get pregnant, then hugely pregnant, then back onstage for the big finale when the action is supposed to take place over the course of a few weeks?
Burlesque, Tess tells us, is about owning the stage, but “Burlesque” commits the cardinal sin of mediocrity. It’s not good enough to be a memorable musical, nor awful enough to become a legendary howler. Unlike the curvy girls that parade across its stages, it’s a totally flat experience.
Duralde is the author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas" available on Amazon.com and the DVD Editor of Movieline. He's also written for MSNBC and the Rotten Tomatoes Show.
Related: Watch Cam Gigandent and Christina Aguilera talk "Burlesque."