All Sequins, No Substance

The hackneyed dance drama Burlesque is unintentionally hilarious

Trash comes in all forms, but rarely in a sequined G-string. That’s all there is to Burlesque, a brain-dead, cliché-riddled pastiche of old Betty Grable movies. This one is strictly for Cher fans who like their campy shtick loud, lewd and ludicrous.

But the biggest problem among many is it’s not her movie. She’s hardly in it. Instead of an excuse to breathe oxygen into the twilight of her career, it turns out to be a slutty paste-up constructed out of spit and chewing gum to showcase the movie debut of the caterwauling Christina Aguilera. They should have all stayed in bed. This movie is so bad it makes you realize how much you miss Showgirls.

Cher still looks good in a thong, but Aguilera can’t act and her singing sounds like calling hogs. This is probably why they cast her as Ali, a roadhouse waitress in Iowa who heads for L.A. after robbing the cash register for her back pay. Once she hits Hollywood, she lands in a bankrupt strip club called the Burlesque Lounge, owned by Tess (Cher) and her ex-husband Vince (Peter Gallagher in little more than a walk-on). Lacquered and shellacked in a Cleopatra wig with her tattoos discreetly covered, Tess is a tired old diva whose legs are going as she belts out “Show a little more, show a little less, welcome to burlesque,” one of the film’s endless parade of moronic songs.

It is never clear what anyone does at the Burlesque, but Stanley Tucci seems to be a gay stage manager who also sews costumes, and Alan Cumming greets people at the door dressed like the evil Nazi M.C. in Cabaret. Aguilera has no higher ambition than to be the next Gypsy Rose Lee, but she never gets any better than Lili St. Cyr, winning the cynical Tess’ heart of marble with a number called “Wagon Wheel Watusi.” Meanwhile, she finds herself torn between Jack (Cam Gigandet), a hunky bartender from Kentucky who wears more mascara than the strippers, and Marcus (Eric Dane), an impossibly handsome millionaire real estate agent who wants to turn the club into high-rise condos.

When Tess’ fermented mother instinct resurfaces from its tomb, it’s time for an old hoofer to teach an ambitious kid the bumps and grinds, and Ali graduates from cocktail waitress to star. The floor show is about bustiers, feathers, tommy guns that fire confetti, waxed bodies and strobe lights, cobbled together with every cliché in the book from the jealous, drunken chorus floozie who sabotages Ali’s first solo, to the best-buddy roommate who turns horny the first time he sees her without her pajamas. When all looks blank and hopeless, Cher straddles a chair like Dietrich and yells out the 11 o’clock blues number, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.” She means it.

There isn’t one shred of originality to be found in Burlesque. A small army of choreographers is listed, but Ali’s cheesy strip number with ostrich plumes is stolen toe to pinky finger from an old routine by Sally Rand, who must be turning over in her grave. Cumming does a bit with two scantily clad tramps and a banana that is nothing more than a ripoff of his “Two Ladies” number from the Studio 54 revival of Cabaret. You begin to think you’re watching two hours of reruns.

It is extremely doubtful that writer-director Steven Antin could direct dune buggies in the Sahara desert, and as a writer the dialogue will keep you in stitches. For dramatic lines, how about, “Life is about the choices you make” and, “How many times have I held your head over the toilet while you threw up everything but your memories?” My favorite exchange (“What’s Ali short for?” “Alice.” “Well—welcome to Wonderland.”) sounds like a skit from the old Carol Burnett Show.

At the press screening I attended, the audience was laughing so hard I had trouble hearing the actors. Twenty-five minutes before the end, the person next to me said, “If they’re gonna get a story outta this, they better hurry.” Don’t hold your breath. Burlesque is the celluloid equivalent to a Big Mac attack, and any resemblance to a plot is purely coincidental.

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