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Burlesque: a bizarrely charming, strangely watchable pile of crap.

November 24, 2010

God knows Burlesque isn’t good. God knows Burlesque is the kind of mess that usually happens when Hollywood gets its hands on a hipster fad a couple years too late. It utterly fails at making the world of burlesque into an enchanting world of shadows in which nothing is as it seems. Things are pretty much as they seem in this movie. It’s not even that sexy, despite all the T and A and all the careful effort taken to package it. I don’t know why that is. It could be that this just wasn’t a very sexy movie, or maybe burlesque in general is too silly to be sexy. At any rate, many of the burlesque numbers stray pretty far from burlesque — would a burlesque show really feature three separate songs about burlesque? Would it feature a dozen women writhing all over a giant illuminated sign that reads “BURLESQUE”? These are the questions that don’t keep me up at night.

And it’s not a very tense movie. Yes, Cher’s burlesque club is in danger of shutting down — but there’s an offer on the table to buy it for $2 million. Back in Silicon Valley we called that “success”. Sure, Christina Aguilera has to work her way up from cocktail waitress to headliner, but there’s never any real question of her doing so, because she happens to dance and sing like Christina Aguilera. Cher, her supposedly tyrannical boss, and Kristen Bell, her supposedly ruthless rival, pretty much like her from the start. In fact, there’s no real professional rivalry at all. Bell, despite looking great in a nightie, apparently can’t sing, and Cher, despite being the only other great singer on screen, never attempts in earnest to keep the spotlight away from Aguilera. Thanks to the flat tone and crude pacing of the film, it doesn’t even seem to take that long. Even for a musical, this is fairly lightweight stuff.

But I couldn’t help liking it. The low stakes that make the movie uninspiring also make it endearing. It turns out there was room for a showbiz movie in which success isn’t very hard and everyone likes each other. First of all, there’s no reason Christina Aguilera shouldn’t be a burlesque superstar, and to dwell for too long on her rise to the top would be insulting. She lays waste to the stage, she grabs hold of notes and shakes them until they burst, she treats tiny, invasive dresses and giant puffy fans as if she’d been handling them all her life. And, sometime in the decade since her last big hit, she has learned to tease. After years of performing in a style we can politely call “anti-burlesque”, Aguilera has mastered the concept of restraint. So it’s not that incredible that her co-performers and her audience should embrace her so suddenly. It’s also plausible that everyone backstage should love each other so damn much, because they’re all sickeningly lovable. Stanley Tucci turns in a particularly fuzzy performance as Cher’s stage manager and platonic life partner, presumably a stand-in for all the gay men in the audience. Their chemistry miraculously enlivens even the dullest scenes in the movie. They joke and tease and flirt as if they really had known each other for years. Frankly, a lo-fi Clerks-style production about Tucci and Cher just hanging out would have been much more fun to watch, but maybe there was a production overrun at the makeup factory and they had to use it on something.

The rest of the cast gamely competes for attention with the main players, even though they maybe shouldn’t have bothered. Cam Gigandet, apparently a hot commodity (I’ve seen Twilight and I barely remember him) plays the guy Aguilera should end up with, even though there isn’t much to him beyond his smile. Eric Dane, of Grey’s Anatomy (whatever that is) plays the guy Aguilera shouldn’t end up with, even though he’s hilarious, charming and very, very rich. Alan Cumming doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as some kind of mascara-wearing burlesque-clown who’s actually as entertaining as the movie makes him out to be. Peter Gallagher’s cuddly as usual, playing Cher’s sweaty ex-husband. I wish there were more to say about the other burlesque girls, but one of the movie’s many failings is that it doesn’t really individuate the dancers’ stage personas, let alone their personalities. Awkwardly and inexplicably, the script tries to give a bigger role to a dancer named Coco (Chelsea Traille), by giving her all of the throwaway speaking lines and having other characters mention her at inappropriate moments. Also, one of them gets pregnant, because they had to fill some screentime. I don’t know.

Burlesque is one of those minor miracles of the screen, one of those movies you watch on a plane that turns out not to be so terrible, one of those movies that are enjoyable for reasons that are impossible to define in terms of other movies, one of those pleasant surprises that make life worth living. Just don’t watch it on purpose.

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