Ann Hornaday reviews 'Burlesque'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 6:00 PM

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, 29-year-old pop singer 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, including her grittily naturalistic supporting turn in "Silkwood" and equally sturdy performance in "Mask."

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. (Some of us still think she was the best thing about 1999's "Tea With Mussolini.")

Sadly, Cher and Aguilera don't sing a duet in "Burlesque." But this corny guilty pleasure of a movie is nonetheless a fitting two-hander for these seasoned pros. Aguilera plays the young, ambitious singer-dancer Ali Rose, who joins a long line of similar star-struck, steely-eyed characters when she teeters out of her Iowa trailer park to make it big in Hollywood. There, 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 Steven Antin will never be accused of breaking new ground with "Burlesque," which favors "You didn't tell me you could sing!" cliches and other familiar tropes. 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 Auto-Tuned bubble gum 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, which are staged with both a nostalgic sense of teasing playfulness and the high-tech extravaganza of a rock show. (Antin cut his teeth making music videos for neo-burlesque troop the Pussycat Dolls.)

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's 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. What is clearly a sop to MTV-weaned younger viewers unaccustomed to letting a scene play out has become the scourge of movie musicals, where filmgoers can barely get a sense of where players are on the stage, let alone what their bodies are doing. There must be good dancing in "Burlesque;" too much of it gets lost 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 (unblonded and almost unrecognizable), who engages in "Burlesque's" most picturesque catfights, both on and off the stage. 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.

No less than Peter Gallagher, Eric Dane and James Brolin round out "Burlesque's" superlative cast, but make no mistake: This is a girls' movie throughout, from the spangled, sequined female drag queens onstage to the two powerhouses sharing the spotlight on screen.

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.

Burlesque rr1/2 (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, profanity and some thematic material.

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