It’s usually a dicey proposition when a megastar in one medium decides to cross over into another medium. Think Michael Jordan and baseball or Eddie Murphy and singing. While they might be serviceable in their new roles, they typically can’t compete at the level audiences expect them to. Now Christina Aguilera leads her first film and while Burlesque is not exactly a great departure from what she does best – singing – it’s different enough to give audiences adequate evidence as to whether or Aguilera can act and carry a film. The answer is that she can – on both counts. The movie itself isn’t the best of its kind in recent history, but it’s still definitely worth watching for fans of Aguilera or musical film.
Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a small-town girl with big dreams and an even bigger voice. She leaves her dead end waitress job in the Midwest and moves to Hollywood. With her limited savings dwindling and constantly being rejected at every audition, Ali stumbles upon the Burlesque Theater which is owned and operated by Tess (Cher), a burlesque performer and den mother to a troupe of beautiful dancers, including Nikki (Kristen Bell) who is the de facto star of the theater. Ali immediately falls in love with the venue and the performance, deciding that she has to be part of it. After befriending the cute bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet), Ali talks her way into a cocktail waitressing position, learning all of the dance routines while serving drinks. When she’s given the opportunity to audition, Ali convinces Tess to hire her as a dancer and manages to impress everyone with her powerful vocals. Unfortunately, while Ali’s star rises, Tess is having trouble paying the two mortgages on the theater, but with the Ali as the new attraction, Tess might be able to raise enough money to pay off the bank and stave off the advances of the hungry land developer (Eric Dane) who makes one irresistible offer after another to buy the space.
Burlesque is a full movie, but not necessarily dense or complicated. With a running-time just shy of two hours, audiences will definitely feel like they got their money’s worth of story. All of the different character arcs and subplots are addressed and viewers aren’t left having to fill in the blanks anywhere. The film does feel over-written at times, however, which is apparent from the very first scene. Characters that aren’t important to the film are given just enough dialogue to make audiences think these characters might be important later, but they aren’t. Other characters, like Tess’ ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) and even Ali’s nemesis Nikki also seem extraneous since their removal from the film wouldn’t alter the story significantly. Still, they do serve to help flesh out the movie and give both Tess and Ali a dramatic foil for character-building; so there’s no real harm in keeping these characters in the film either.
As far as musical films go, Burlesque is a bit of an oddity. Traditional musicals typically feature a surreal integration of the musical numbers within the universe of the work. Characters will break out into song and dance because there is no other way to express the emotion of the situation. Burlesque handles the music in a more practical manner by making the numbers real-world events within the film. Basically, all of the songs and dances are performances in the Burlesque Theater, which means no one is going to be walking down the street, singing in the rain or belting notes from balconies. Instead, when Tess has just finished a conversation about the uncertainty of the theater, she is conveniently reminded that she has a new song to rehearse before she leaves. The song just happens to illustrate her state of mind at the moment. The contrived fashion in which the film sets up these moments may draw titters from viewers, but thankfully they are few and far between.
It’s a shame, however, that only the two bona fide singers – Aguilera and Cher – get to sing. Aguilera is a wonderful performer and her signature, smoldering melisma is comforting in an inexplicable way, but it would have been nice to see more set pieces with other characters. As it stands, Burlesque can feel more like a Christina Aguilera concert than a traditional musical, which might be a blessing or a curse, depending on fan status.
Finally, while there’s plenty of eye-candy for both genders – Cher’s looks defy her age and reality – the film skews towards females. There’s a sexy scene with Cam Gigandet that has him walking around completely nude with only a box of cookies to hide his shame, but when Aguilera performs a striptease and the camera gets an omniscient peek from behind, any detail of her body is obfuscated by shadows. Alas. Nevertheless, Burlesque looks great and – despite a few niggles, like a woefully underused Alan Cumming – will definitely satisfy most fans of musical films.