by Chuck Williamson
A garish mash-up of backstage musical and divalicious pop spectacle, Steven Antin’s Burlesque works best as a hyperkinetic, hootchy kootchy parade of plasticized bodies where a coterie of chorus girls writhe and wriggle as the pseudo-vaudevillian “living curtain” backing up their bitch-goddess Xtina who soulfully caterwauls at center-stage. The film’s narrative, a creaky collection of showbiz melodrama clichés complete with the inevitable “a star is born” catharsis, erupts in brief staccato bursts that intermittingly punctuate the razzle-dazzle of the deliriously trashy production numbers with what traditional screenwriters might misconstrue as “motivation.” Cher and Christina sashay through one gauzy burlesque performance to the next, high-stepping, posing, and dishing out the high octaves while periodically loping into frame to discuss whatever low-stakes dilemma will be resolved either through an inexplicable third-act deus-ex-machina or the combined powers of divadom. Does it matter? Because, like, who cares? Burlesque is all about kinetic momentum, open-palmed sass, and the forbidden thrill of bad taste, doubling as a sequined love-letter to the pre-code backstage musical that oscillates somewhere between reverence and camp (but mostly camp).
Equal parts earnest and ridiculous, Burlesque indulges in the trashiest sub-quadrants of pop-culture ephemera, reveling in the most empty-headed and spectacle obsessed sort of bad taste; the film wallows in the garish, the grotesque, and the gleefully artificial. Even its glittery production numbers, once the interstitial passages in Hollywood musicals designed for authentic, spontaneous, or—heaven forbid!—introspective expression, function more as a tacky, carnivalesque displays that turn showbiz kitsch into a delirious bodily performance. Each production number is forceful and frenetic, chopped up into a near-indecipherable tangle of limbs and filled with glitter, garish neon lighting, and Aguilera’s hyper-charged vocal solos; they do no express the characters’ psychological interiority because—wouldn’t you know it?—the characters are all surface and no soul. For Ali (Christina Aguilera), the mid-western farm-girl turned overnight burlesque sensation, “keepin’ it real” entails gaining fame, fortune, and her deliciously muscled songwriting lothario all while re-imagining herself as a one-dimensional pin-up, an eroticized icon whose corseted frame and ghoulish stage make-up suggests a performative masquerade at odds with her oft-exposited desire to rise to the top without “losing herself.”
Perhaps no character pays better lip service to the film’s credo of shameless superficiality than Tess (Cher), who occasionally slinks out from the film’s periphery to delivery sage advice like, “When you are putting on your make-up, it’s like you’re an artist. But instead of painting on a canvas, you’re painting your face.” And as the so-called “bitch with mutant lungs” shimmies down the stage and delivers a full-throated rendition of Etta James’ “Tough Lover” while decked out in S.S. fetish gear—transforming herself from small-town zero to cooch-dancing superstar—she follows the Tao of Cher and splatter-paints her face into a near-parodic extreme of femininity. Extreme close-ups of Aguilera’s dolled-up face and kinetic bodily movements (recalling similar imaging techniques from The Red Shoes) make the performer look phantasmagoric and unreal, a plasticized shell that can paradoxically belt out high-octave renditions of blue standards.
But rather than grate on the nerves, this willful embrace of the frivolous, fake, and borderline idiotic makes Burlesque strangely charming and compelling; it is a paean to kitsch, camp, and bad taste that delights from beginning to end. And why shouldn’t it? What else could we expect from a film where the temptation of materialist excess is literalized as a gaudy pair of Louboutin pumps? Why should we expect interiority or introspection from a film that has its soulful songwriting love interest pay homage to Aguilera, his creative muse, by penning a deeply personal but innanely trashy showtune called “Show Me How You Burlesque?” How could we not be sucker-punched by a film that compresses its narrative into multiple musical montages, that pauses everything so Cher can get diva on, that uses “eating cookies” as erotic innuendo, that’s so replete with cat-fights, hissy-fits, tacky costumes, and eye-rolling one-liners?
My mind says B, but my heart says B+