A dynamic duo: Sing it, sisters.
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 26, 2010
The first genuine showstopper in the musical "Burlesque" is a brassy, bawdy anthem called "Welcome to Burlesque," a valentine to pure camp made all the more exhilarating in that it marks Cher's return to the big screen after a too-long seven-year hiatus.
Granted, this uneven but infectiously cheery movie is clearly designed around Cher's co-star, the 29-year-old pop star Christina Aguilera, who in her feature film debut bumps and grinds and shimmies and belts her way to certain stardom. But "Burlesque" also offers a case study in what has made the 64-year-old Cher such a captivating and enduring presence, a star of the glitzy old school who could scandalize Hollywood with a gloriously tacky Oscar gown - and deservedly win the award. (That, you'll recall, was for "Moonstruck," a lovely romance that featured just one of several stunning, serious acting turns for Cher throughout the 1980s.)
In her eye-popping opening number and later, in a surprisingly affecting power ballad, Cher proves that she can still belt, but more to the point, she can still act.
This corny guilty pleasure of a movie is a fitting two-hander for these seasoned pros. Aguilera plays the young, ambitious singer-dancer Ali Rose, who teeters out of her Iowa trailer park to make it big in Hollywood. While roaming the Sunset Strip, she comes under the wise - and really well cosmeticized - tutelage of Cher's Tess, who runs the Burlesque Lounge, a fading temple of rococo excess and tatty retro glamour.
First-time writer-director Steve Antin will never be accused of breaking new ground with "Burlesque." But even within an otherwise predictable string of stock scenes and awkwardly staged montages, Cher can be counted on to deliver "Burlesque's" most poignant and funny moments. And more often than not, those moments occur when she's trading wearily affectionate banter with Stanley Tucci, who plays Sean, Tess's longtime stage manager and gay boyfriend with his usual deadpan humor and sensitivity.
Aguilera, whose throaty, blues-inflected voice has always stood out from the Autotuned bubblegum of her peers, gets to show off her prodigious range and vintage taste in "Burlesque," where she struts her diminutive frame in progressively more bedazzling - and revealing - costumes. With pipes and well-honed showmanship like hers, it's no surprise that Aguilera completely nails the movie's production numbers.
As an actress, Aguilera's understandably a bit more unsteady. Her newcomer's uncertainty fits Ali's own fledgling self-awareness, but it remains to be seen whether Aguilera can become the multi-hyphenate on par with her co-star. Certainly her lack of experience helps explain why, of the two power-ballad solos in "Burlesque," Cher's "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" lands with such powerful force. Written by the great Diane Warren, the song is Cher's "I'm Not Going" moment, a mirror image of the resilience, autonomy and sheer chops she has come to represent.
When Cher/Tess sighs, "Let's get this over with" before the song, her reluctance is obviously pure hooey, the kind of Hollywood artifice that "Burlesque" celebrates without a trace of irony. What's more, it provides welcome respite from the film's chief flaw, which is Antin's penchant for a constantly moving camera and whipsaw editing. There must be good dancing in "Burlesque," but too much of it gets lots in a Cuisinarted welter of swish pans and jump cuts.
"What happened to all the great dancers in L.A.?" Tess asks Sean at one point. "They're on 'Dancing With the Stars,'" he quips. And look! There's one now! "DWTS's" own Julianne Hough plays one of Tess's dancers, as does Kristen Bell, who engages in "Burlesque's" most picturesque catfights. Alan Cumming, nodding coyly to his own breakout performance in "Cabaret," is shamefully underused as the club's heavily guylined doorman-slash-bouncer, although we see plenty of Cam Gigandet as Jack, the Burlesque's cute bartender and Ali's (mostly) chaste love interest.
As a musical, a backstage coming-of-age drama and an ingenue's burstingly assured star turn, "Burlesque" proves a worthy addition to those canons, landing on the respectable side of the "42nd Street"-"Showgirls" spectrum.
But it succeeds most as one generation's transfer of pop-culture wealth to another. "Remember," Tess advises one of her dancers, "if you fall off the stage: legs extended, boobs out." That might as well be Cher's motto for life, the watchwords of a consummate professional who knows that, to survive, every diva needs a dash of self-deprecation. "Burlesque" delivers eyeful after eyeful of rapid-fire opulence and spectacle. But its most memorable sight is the indelible image of one star taking flight, and another triumphantly staying put.
Contains sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, profanity and thematic material.