Burlesque bumps and grinds. And then it continues to grind and grind and grind. This new musical leaves no cliché unturned as it struggles to find the heart of cabaret (that's cabaret with both a small and big "C" - the stage genius of Bob Fosse is an evident if unfulfilled aspiration).
The girls at the Burlesque Lounge on the Sunset Strip dance onstage in exotic underwear while lip-synching risqué numbers, but no clothing is removed. They may shake their moneymakers, but Burlesque remains unstirred. In her screen debut, Christina Aguilera stars as Ali, the orphaned Iowa waitress who ditches her job in the film's opening sequence, belts out a few bars so we know she has some big pipes, straps on her platform pumps, and heads for the glittering lights of Hollywood.
Those wishing for another camp touchstone like Showgirls will be disappointed. Writer-director Steve Antin has none of Paul Verhoeven's visual flair or tarty taste. Burlesque's dialogue plods along predictably, and the performance numbers are edited like a cut-and-paste mosaic.Cher was a shrewd casting choice in terms of upping the film's camp cred, but apart from her power ballad "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," the diva plays it straight as the club's proprietor and den mother Tess. Aguilera always grabs our attention with her powerful vocal abilities, but that's no reason to weigh down the narrative with a center section that is little more than half a dozen Aguilera music videos in a row.
Burlesque is populated with a great many secondary characters, though they all come with even less backstory than little orphan Ali. Cam Gigandet is an eyeliner-wearing but straight bartender who serves as Ali's wan love interest. Eric Dane provides even more colorless romance, but his Marcus is rich and powerful and has ulterior motives for wanting to buy out Tess' mortgage on the club. Peter Gallagher plays Tess' ex-husband, who has part ownership of the club, and Stanley Tucci is the stage manager and Tess' loyal friend.
Julianne Hough and Kristen Bell are a couple of dancers - one becomes conveniently pregnant, which opens up a spot for Ali in the ensemble, and the other becomes Ali's nemesis. Alan Cumming is the club's MC, and though he's the only performer to project the Weimar vibe of Cabaret, his appearance in the film is painfully brief.
As Burlesque ground along its well-worn path, my inner voice indeed shouted "Take it off," though my request was directed toward the projection booth rather than the dancers onstage.