Friday, November 26, 2010

Squalor: Burlesque

What Burlesque promised viewers was a good bad movie.  Whether or not it delivers on that promise is a matter of individual good-bad taste.  Movies like Burlesque can be impossible to effectively critique in part because, ultimately, the criticism does not matter.  When you gather Cher and Christina Aguilera for a film titled Burlesque, you're not shooting for a "good" movie, you're hoping for at least one solid showstopping number.  Plot isn't an issue here.  There is one, but it's a recycled piece of sugar dusted Styrofoam.  All that matters, all that's worth the price of admission, is exactly what anyone going to a film starring the Genie in the Bottle would want:  flash, pop, glitter.  Burlesque succeeds where a too tightly-corseted film like last year's Nine failed miserably:  it does not try to be artistically relevant, it does not spread itself too thin, it cast real, talented singers in its lead roles.  Burlesque is glitter vomit.  I say that in the best way imaginable.  It's a shiny, sparkly, wink and a smile spread over what would otherwise be an easily ignored pile of sick.
The aforementioned Styrofoam plot is the same old song and dance swiped from a million showbiz tales.  It's Showgirls without the soft-core flailing pool sex.  Ali (Christina Aguilera), a gung-ho little small town girl packs a couple bags and high-tails it to Los Angeles on a wing and a prayer.  We're not clear on exactly what sort of work she's looking for, but in a brief, cheap, walking montage we see her tries at dancing and singing gigs don't go so well.  Just by chance, she walks into an unassuming entrance and into a glittery other-world of scantily clad, lip syncing ladies run by Tess (Cher), a tough, devil may care type of broad whose cheeks never move.  The club is in financial trouble, so Tess has no time for Ali.  But, Ali, little pluckster that she is, commandeers a job as a waitress, lands on the bartender's (Cam Gigandet, Twilight, Easy A) couch, and repeatedly pleas for a shot at the majors week after week.  Things happen, and, well, soon she's strutting her stuff.  Obviously, the best moments of Burlesque occur on stage.  Director Steve Antin is the brother of Pussycat Dolls creator Robin Antin, and it shows.  When Ali and the other girls are doing their thing, the film is just like being swept up in a Pussycat Dolls (the original burlesque show, not the pop act) Vegas affair.  The acts are tastefully risque, campy kitsch in bold stripes and Swarovski encrusted lingerie.  The show within a show here captures the cheeky nature of the burlesque art.  It works.  Even the reluctant cinephile will probably surrender to the fancy VMA performativity of the song and dance routines. When the music stops, however, the ground gets a hell of a lot shakier.  
It should come as no great surprise that Aguilera is not really an actress.  There are points at which she really just tries too hard, and her enthusiasm is simultaneously an orgy of the cheesy and obnoxiously, embarrassingly cloying.  As our protagonist, her character receives the most screen time, though her character is woefully underdeveloped.  In essence, what we know about Ali is that she's a go-getter, talented, and the sort of naively comfortable exhibitionist who doesn't have a problem not wearing a bra while slumming on the sofa of a straight  male with an out of town fiance.  There's little else.  Her success comes easily, though it's suggested she has hardship in her past.  Ali is less a character than an energy.  Tess is less a character than a plot device.  Tess is there to act as obstacle, mentor, and whining mechanism.  Through Tess and her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) we are constantly reminded that while the cabaret is a big bowl of cherries on the outside, the reality is the economic pits.  The talkie bits, too, those are the real pits.  The dialogue in Burlesque is the sort that can only be delivered by a self-aware actor.  Cher and Stanley Tucci are in the know.  As the venue's diva bitch, Kristen Bell seems to have some semblance of a clue as well.  With Aguilera and Gigandet, it's hard to tell.  They seem to be having a good time, but there are occasions where they're just too sincere.  Their sincerity, while manipulated well into silliness by Antin, has sort of the effect of watching a sexually precocious preteen construct a dialogue between their Barbie and Ken dolls.  Which is to say, sometimes it just feels wrong in a way less knowingly camp and more just creepily insipid.   
My two biggest problems with Burlesque were these:  the first that the film offers up a pair of downer ballads that seem to make no sense in context (do people go to a burlesque act to hear the griping of its aging grand dame? I don't.  It's not unheard of, I suppose, but really just lame), the second that its male eye candy, Cam Gigandet, seriously looks like a sketchy date rapist.  That's him just above.  Look at that guy.  He squints too much, his uniform is a vest with nothing underneath, he has hideous tattoos and an unflattering haircut.  He literally looks like he got his game from the the Pickup Artist and might throw a roofie in the drink you ordered.  Yeah, I just don't trust that guy.  Some men look good in eyeliner.  Cam Gigandet is not one of them.    

So, Burlesque is not a good movie.  It could, however, be your brand of good-bad movie.  For some, it will evolve into a comforting place to be revisited while sick at home or mildly depressed.  For others, it'll be a loathsome piece of nonsensical detritus.  For me, it was a good movie to watch on an otherwise uneventful evening; one that could be laughed at and with (though more of the former) without too much trouble, and one with a song or two that will likely wind up on my iPod.   It is what it is, and that's all there is to it.

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