In "Burlesque," the gaudy new movie musical, Christina Aguilera plays a buxom nobody from Iowa who comes to the big city in search of fame and money, although she's such a cipher that this might be the audience projecting motivation on a character that simply seems to glide through whole sequences, sometimes quite literally. After a painfully inept "looking for a job" montage that gives the term "workmanlike" a bad name, she comes across a squat building on Sunset Boulevard that promises "The Best View on the Sunset Strip - Without Any Windows." Inside, Alan Cumming, grabbing every second of screen time he has and devouring it carnivorously, informs our young ingenue that it's not a strip club and it's $20 admittance. She can barely part with the twenty but does so anyway. When she walks in she's offered quite the sight: Cher (or at least a Cher-like android) performing a song called "Welcome to Burlesque," while lithe young dancers in bustiers and knee-length socks purr around her.
Aguilera thinks, in the words of Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there."
And so begins the "story" portion of "Burlesque," which pretty much hits every expected emotional and narrative beat you'd expect: she falls for a pretty boy bartender/songwriter (Cam Gigandet), understands the cruelty of the big city (her apartment is broken into), makes her way through the ranks (she wows 'em with her singing voice), and gets into a catty competition of bitchy put-downs with the resident diva (Kristin Bell, woefully miscast and forced to wear a terrible wig). Along the way, of course, she forms a paternal bond with matriarch Cher and Cher's number two, an ambiguously gay Stanley Tucci. Oh, and there's the villainous landowner (Eric Dane) who woos Christina and makes a play to buy the burlesque house so he can turn it into a tacky high rise. Peter Gallagher plays Cher's ex-husband but he just seems to be wandering through the set looking disheveled (unlike Cumming, he rarely sees cause to steal his precious few scenes).
First time writer-director Steven Antin (with uncredited assists on the screenplay by the genuinely great Diablo Cody and Susannah Grant) is uninterested in adding anything to the cauldron of clichés that largely makes up "Burlesque." Everywhere you turn, a touchstone is glancingly referenced, whether it be "A Star is Born" or "All About Eve" or "Showgirls." Unlike next month's "Black Swan," it's not invested in any particular narrative or thematic avenue. Instead, it's 100% surface, complete with the dancer that has to give up the glamour of the job to start a family, unwilling to engage with anything beyond the superficial.
The truth is that largely, we don't really mind. This is mostly because of the snap and sizzle of the musical/dance numbers, which are wonderfully choreographed (the opening Cher number had more heart and pizazz than all of Rob Marshall's limp "Nine") and edited for maximum rhythmic, toe-tapping effect. Aguilera can really belt them out, and the cast of largely unknown backup dancers aren't exactly difficult to look at -- they sway and slither around the stage for maximum amount of erotic flash.
It's just when someone isn't on stage dancing or singing, the movie is almost painfully inept. The flow and rhythm that's captured in the musical sequences is replaced by a kind of stuttering lack of engagement, complete with poorly edited montages and hilariously awkward dialogue (there's a protracted "seduction" sequence that is just plain goofy). The characters have no lives outside of the burlesque house (although everyone seems to be reading newspapers), so there's not a whole lot to grab onto.
And the house itself, which should have been a real character, seems like phony glitz. It's always suggestive and never seedy, which also means that it's never dangerous. And Antin films the interiors (which look like a leftover set from the "Chicago" movie) for maximum atmosphere, always shooting through a window or off a mirror. Some of the gauziness of the cinematography might be attributed to the notoriously temperamental Cher, who seems to have employed an entire team of lighting specialists (as well as Imagineers -- robots need upkeep) to keep her looking youthful and glowing. At one point she asks the lighting guy to put a spotlight on her for her second big musical number (this time it's pained introspection she's going for). The lighting guy turns on the light, but on screen the star is still draped in shadow, seemingly back-lit by a handful of burning embers.
But the movie still has enough plucky "you-go-girl" spirit that you will leave the theater entertained. The third act is a particularly painful jumble, one which seems somehow conversely burdened by too much conflict and yet not enough drama, and whoever did Aguilera's make-up and wardrobe should be poked with a sharp stick (we get it: she has huge tits), but man do those songs really pop. Which, in the end, might be the only thing that really matters.
As a clumsy, politically ambiguous tale of a small town girl making it in the big city, it's earnest and innocuous enough not to offend; as a genuine piece of playfully provocative cinema, it falls hopelessly short. The art of the on-stage seduction lies in the combination of the tease and the reveal, and the same should have been true of "Burlesque." The title suggests something far sexier than the movie provides; in the end it's all sizzle and no show. [C+]