30 November 2010


There's been some chatter as to whether Burlesque is a bad enough movie to be good, which is sort of the wrong approach to take: I should like to claim on the contrary that Burlesque is good enough to be a good movie. It is, specifically, only as good as it has to be, and not one inch more; and it's the "once inch more" that separates perfectly satisfying, entertaining movies from great films. But expecting a great film from a picture titled Burlesque (or more to the point, from a Cher/Christina Aguilera vehicle titled Burlesque) would have been a folly, and the project does what it aims to do. There are, yes, ways that it could have done the same thing while being better, and at least one of these was never going to happen. But any judgment of Burlesque as a "bad movie" is necessarily a conceptual one, for it is on the whole a perfectly well-executed version of the concept.

It's a concept you've seen, by the way: poor girl from the sticks makes good in Los Angeles, while impressing the cynical old master, winning the cute boy, and fighting off the dreaded land snatch. Yes indeed, there is a shady real estate deal underpinning the thing that writer/director Steve Antin dares to call a "plot", and the happy resolution involves juggling the air rights over Sunset Blvd. - and not least of the film's problems is that the concept of "air rights" has no real place in a movie whose emphatically stated raison d'être is "Here be divas" - and generally speaking, if you are not able to correct predict every ebb and flow of of the narrative at least a half-hour in advance, then you are also probably not reading this review, because they don't get the internet in caves.

But then again, Antin does not presume that he is working with anything but the mustiest of backstage drama clichés, and bless him and his movie for being utterly devoid of shame. Burlesque is happy to rip-off every "girl from the country becomes a star" story to pre-date the cinema; to borrow from both Bob Fosse's film version of Cabaret and Sam Mendes's 1990s stage revival of same, so liberally that I stopped bothered trying to pay attention midway through the first song (even the font used in the credits, for Christ's sake!); to care not in the slightest degree about any of the narrative grinding, delighting in needlessly torturing the audience by stretching out the romantic subplot way beyond the point of reason, knowing that we know exactly where it's going. It does all these things not because Antin is lazy - indeed, to judge from the sheer number of camera set-ups he must have been heavily caffeinated (or more) for every second of the shoot - but because, I mean, come on: the goddamn title is Burlesque. Pastiche and copying and mucking about in the lowest-brow tropes possible is the very point of such an endeavor. A more solid story, told with more cunning and depth, could not have been the same movie, because at that point it would have been, I don't know, Coal Miner's Daughter in lacy lingerie, and it would have been almost respectable, and that's just wrong. A movie called Burlesque must be tacky and trashy. And lo! it is both of these things.

Essentially, there are two parts to the movie: the plot parts, which often suck and are boring, and the musical parts. I take that back, for there's even a third part: the dishy backstage melodrama in which Cher looks mildly bemused at this eager pop-tart trying to prove that she knows what's what (and well she might, being, after all, Cher), while Kristen Bell huffs and puffs and is ecstatically bitchy, getting one of the best withering put-down lines in recent memory, while being afforded many opportunities to act sloshed; and Stanley Tucci remains over here to the side, beatifically allowing his sensible dry wit to ground all of the whirling gargoyles in woman's form swirling about him, and making a tossed-off, even stupid joke about wearing a wig into one of the funniest mvie moments in 2010, and being non-threateningly gay. Among its many other acts of thievery, Burlesque transparently wants us to compare it to Showgirls, and it fails utterly to earn that comparison; but that's the ballpark of where we're at.

It's the "plotty" plot where the movie goes awry; when the biggest conflict in a script is wondering how long it shall take someone to observe that Cam Gigandet is prettier than Eric Dane, it is officially a conflict-free script. The interpersonal politics of Burlesque are hypnotically arbitrary, designed solely to bloat out a movie that really should have been aiming for the 90 minute mark, not 120; but whatever. Eventually, Christina and Gigandet make out, with him wearing a strategically low-riding towel, and all the women and gay men in the audience cheer, and the straight men in the audience- no, I don't even have a gag to cover how unlikely it is that there's a straight man watching Burlesque who wasn't paid to do it.

And that leaves the music: eight Christina songs and two Cher songs, which is a criminally insufficient use of Cher, though Antin knows that she's the real showstopper here, which is why her second number, a pretty darn good if not hugely specific barn-rattler called "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me", is the only aesthetically sedate part of the whole picture: just the singer, teal lighting, and a bit more editing than I'd have preferred - and for these reasons it is by far the best moment in the film. Christina's songs are a bit more "pop" than "burlesque", despite the ominpresence of the word "burlesque" in the titles - once used as a verb, no less! - but only an idiot would go about saying that she doesn't have a powerful voice. It is a voice with less personalty than Cher's doubtlessly. But that's not the same thing.

What Ms. Aguilera lacks, though... there are two types of reviews of her performance, the "I am shocked that she is such a good actress" group, and the "I am not shocked that she is not a good actress" group, and I belong to the latter. There's obviously a lot worse that things could be: she has nothing on the e. coli awfulness of Britney Spears in Crossroads. But let us just say that in a film that wasn't already awash with garish camp, her stiff, unnatural, and frankly uncharismatic performance wouldn't work at all, and it's hard not to side with Bell's angry eyes every time she looks at her rival. Besides, the 29-year-old Aguilera was maybe not the swellest choice to play an ingenue; she is as far as far can be from an old hag, but nor is she as fresh and bright and glowing as the script seems to want her to be. Then again, the ages of characters is plainly not a huge concern to Burlesque, which at one point seems to imply that Cher and Kristen Bell are near-contemporaries.

Anyway, the film is ludicrous and wildly unexceptional except when it is stealing everything it possibly can from Fosse, and has a shit script and the acting is all over the map. I still loved it, without irony. Because frankly, the film is almost totally without irony as well, and for something this breathtakingly artificial, a lack of irony is decidedly refreshing. Along with Step Up 3D, it is my least-guilty guilty pleasure of the year.



The.Watcher said...

"It's the "plotty" plot where the movie goes awry; when the biggest conflict in a script is wondering how long it shall take someone to observe that Cam Gigandet is pretty than Eric Dane, it is officially a conflict-free."

Something tells me you got distracted:)

Zev Valancy said...

"Eventually, Christina and Gigandet make out, with him wearing a strategically low-riding towel, and all the women and gay men in the audience cheer, and the straight men in the audience- no, I don't even have a gag to cover how unlikely it is that there's a straight man watching Burlesque who wasn't paid to do it."

But what of the lesbians watching, Tim? WHAT OF THE LESBIANS?

Of course their prurient interests are probably satisfied with the skimpily clad women dancing about. Which raises the question--are the burlesque routines actually sexy, or are they too gaudy for that even to be possible?

Tim said...

The.Watcher- Hm. I swear that I wrote "conflict-free script". Though not the comparative form of pretty, that was just a flat-out mistake. Will fix when I am able.

Zev- Too gaudy for it to even be possible, but it's not as sprawlingly anti-sexy as Penélope Cruz's strip-tease in Nine. Kristen Bell wears a dress that leaves little to the imagination and fulfills all of my VMars-era fantasies.

Movie Guy said...

was going to skip, but I'll def have to catch this one..I'm definitely a follower of your blog.

Please stop by my site and follow my movie reviews as well...thanks!


Zev Valancy said...

How ever did you guess I was thinking about "Nine"?

And you don't appear to be thinking of the lesbians. I'm disappointed in you.

(Actually, the NY Times review raised the point that the movie was riddled with Christina's longing looks at the other dancers, and would have been a lot more interesting if it had had the guts to be the lesbian romp is seemed to want to be anyway. Thoughts?)

Jenna said...

I LOVED THIS MOVIE and honestly if you go into the darn movie theatre thinking your not going to like you are gonna find yourself nit picking every little possible thing. I thought they did really good and as a woman myself, it makes you proud to be a girl and it shows dreams come true... who doesnt like that!!! You guys are just boys, thats why you dont like it, just immature little boys that don't like seeing a movie be devoted to the female viewers! You guys shouldn't have watched it if you didnt want to see it to begin with