Consider the wisdom Burlesque has to offer. At one point, Tess tells Ali that doing makeup is like doing art; except instead of painting a canvas, you’re painting a face. This line is destined to go down in infamy, to be yelled out by audiences during midnight screenings where that line’s sheer lack of self-awareness might actually be welcome. Burlesque is already a camp classic, its sheer awfulness all but guaranteeing its eventual acceptance through ironic appreciation.
Small town girl Ali (Christina Aguilera) leaves Iowa and moves to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of performing. She ends up in a troubled Burlesque club run by the bullheaded Tess (Cher), who doesn’t take to Ali very well. But Ali gets a job as a waitress, waiting for her chance to show Tess and the people of L.A. what she’s got. Her talent gets her up on stage, and her incredible voice soon gives the troubled club a chance to dig itself out of debt. But even with Ali’s talent headlining the show, Tess finds that the financial realities might still be too much to bear.
There isn’t a whole to say about the story of Burlesque. The film itself doesn’t really care about the details of the plot. They might say, for example, that the club is in trouble. But they’ll show us a lively club full of people, where Ali might struggle to keep up with drink orders. Or Tess will insist that they are a club where the girls lip-sync to classic hits. And yet they employ a full band. At one point in the film, Tess walks into her club after hours, and the DJ tells her that he’s got that song that she wanted to rehearse. She then proceeds to sing a song that would never fit in a burlesque show.
The main conflict itself doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny. Tess has a buyer willing to pay her a million dollars for the club. She refuses outright, never considering the possibility of taking the money and moving somewhere else. Burlesque isn’t the kind of film that needs to adhere to a stringent standard of logic, but it could have at least tried to make some of it feel like it existed in the real world. The story exists to barely string together the film’s numerous song numbers. The talent on hand makes the numbers somewhat appealing, even though they’re just watered down version of actual burlesque. The numbers are also pretty badly shot. The camerawork as a whole is just weird. There are a couple of shots where the film goes handheld, and it feels like the cameraman got tired and moved the camera from one shoulder to another. Again, the film doesn’t much of an illusion, but that wrecks it altogether.
Christina Aguilera is a great singer, but she isn’t much of an actress. She only manages to show recognizable emotion when she’s singing. When she’s talking, she delivers lines with the same vocal rhythm, regardless of what she’s supposed to be feeling. Cher has already proven her worth as an actress, but her face can barely convey anything now. Stanley Tucci and Alan Cumming manage to class up the joint but their mere presence. The film benefits greatly from Tucci in particular, who provides a measure of sobriety.
What’s most baffling about Burlesque is how it doesn’t even really to live up to the spirit of its namesake. There are only a couple of numbers in here that feel like they would actually belong in a modern burlesque production. The rest of it is either too sanitized or too theatrical, taking their cues not from the source, but from the language of musical theater. Even in living up to the name, Burlesque staunchly rejects reality.