Garish 'Burlesque' Falls on Its Face
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
While it will be impossible to determine which motion picture wins the title of Most Aggressively Insubstantial Holiday Entertainment of 2010 until "Yogi Bear" gets its day in court, the backstage musical "Burlesque," a dual vehicle for big-piped belter Christina Aguilera and timeless (if you ask her) diva AND Oscar-winning actress Cher, makes a very strong showing in this category right out of the box, as it were. The camera dollies in on a lyrical American Midwestern sunset and a bar named Dwight's, where sassy waitress Ali (Aguilera) has to raid the till for a one-way ticket to the City of Angels, where her big chance presumably awaits. The only thing missing is Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" on the soundtrack, but trust me, that's the only thing missing.
Soon enough the sassy but sweet Ali is waitressing, then dancing, then, in a dramatic coup de theatre, singing at the sequin-spangled NOT A STRIP CLUB owned by Cher's Tess and coveted by a sharklike businessman quasi charmer played by generic salt-and-pepper haired hunk Eric Dane. She's also being non-romanced by bartender-who's-really-a-composer dude played by younger, and hence single-shaded in the hair department, hunk Cam Gigandet. As Tess' harried ex-husband, Peter Gallagher signals financial distress by letting his own hair fall in his face a lot. Stanley Tucci is bald, as is customary, playing Tess' aide de camp.
If I seem fixated on appearances here, what can I tell you: There isn't much else here on which to fixate one's attention. The story line and the musical production numbers lift from the likes of "Cabaret," "42nd Street," "The Red Shoes" and "Flashdance" -- all the classics, with little of the actual inspiration that went into the least of them. The original songs are serviceable, nothing more. There are a few semiotic curiosities, including the use of an oldish Madonna hit on the soundtrack and the cameo appearance near the end of the husband of another big-piped belting diva, who herself will be seen in a film starring Robert De Niro later this month. Interestingly, too, the film's attitude toward big business does, eventually, befit what you might think the worldview of a writer/director who once dated David Geffen would, in fact, be. (The gentleman in question is Steven Antin, a onetime child actor who appeared in "The Goonies.")
Ho, and additionally, hum. Truth to tell, the production numbers aren't terrible, and the bump-and-grind gyrations of various scantily clad females throughout are hardly unpleasant to behold. Cher herself remains such a sui generis song stylist that the gated echo on a snare drum that would sound hopelessly anachronistic on any other song fits right in on her big power ballad here. And the picture's overall old-fashioned take on show biz is kind of cute once you get used to it.
So what's the problem? The usual -- too much of the bad things. At nearly two hours when it could have gotten the job done in less than 90 minutes, the picture becomes a bit of a chore to sit through in its second half, as the characters start revealing the hopes and dreams and backstories you were hoping against hope that you'd be spared. Indeed, during one lovey-dovey post-coital dialogue exchange, I am afraid I disturbed my colleagues at the screening I attended by involuntarily (really!) but nonetheless audibly whimpering, "Stop talking. Please...stop...talking." My plea went unheard, but eventually the scene ended, the film cut away to show yet another gaggle of what SCTV's immortal character Mrs. Prickley once dubbed "chicks in their underwear," and all was well, or at least better, for another couple of minutes. But things would have been better still had there been contrived some way to avoid the pain entirely.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.