It’s really hard to make a decent musical. Almost all of them ever produced suck, and the ones that don’t are obsessed over like buried treasure. Think about how low the bar is. 2007’s remake of Hairspray is, without question, above average and has the right to exist, but it got the same Rotten Tomatoes score, 91%, as Saving Private Ryan. I’d complain, but I’ve watched Hairspray twice in the last six months. Sometimes a musical is the only thing that fits the mood. You can only sit through Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show so many times without crossing your fingers and wishing for new blood, which brings us to Burlesque.
Burlesque is a glitzy tribute to two of the greatest divas ever. That plot point alone should have helped its gyrating, gay-friendly ass shimmy into cult status almost immediately. Unfortunately, it’s just really not that good. In fact, Burlesque is only marginally better than terrible. With no standout songs and the two female leads essentially playing no-name versions of themselves, Burlesque will be remembered as that musical Christina and Cher did together, kinda like that action movie Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman did together. What the hell was that one called? Probably not worth looking up.
Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a waitress at a hole-in-the-wall diner in the Heartland. With no family or real reason to stay, she sets off on a one way trip to Los Angeles to find her fame and fortune as a singer or dancer or maybe both. Within a day, she’s serving drinks at a burlesque club run by the aging Tess (Cher), a rundown place on the Sunset Strip that's going broke fast. The bank is threatening to foreclose and Marcus (Eric Dane), the only serious buyer, isn’t interested in negotiating any sort of partnership. It’s his way or the highway, or a third way if Tess ever gets off her ass and discovers Ali’s Christina Aguilera-like voice.
Obviously, she does. Business starts booming, and the plot hurries into rom-com mode. The boy’s name is Jack (Cam Gigandet). He tends bar at the club, wears eyeliner and is engaged. After an unexplained, never again addressed robbery, he’s also Ali’s roommate, which further confuses a precarious, yet budding relationship between Ali and Marcus, who by the way, is still trying to purchase the cash-strapped club. If all of this seems confusing, I wouldn’t worry. Burlesque isn’t the type of movie that assumes its viewers can reason or infer on their own.
It would be easy to point failure fingers at Cher and Christina Aguilera here, neither of whom are any better than decent, but the real problem with Burlesque is in its script and general concept. There are really only two different ways to make a musical. Either you write a slew of multi-layered songs to give real characters depth and motivation, or you stick with broad, easily-deciphered representations of good and evil or slut and princess or Jet and Shark and then push those dichotomies to the extreme. The latter should work for Burlesque, but the final result feels neutered, like writer and director Steve Antin wrote polarized opposites but then reeled back to try and make his characters more realistic. Vaguely realistic is always worse than not realistic at all.
In addition to Cher and Christina, the other main female character is played by Kristen Bell. Her name is Nikki, and she’s the bitch. Or at least she’s supposed to be. Most of the time she stomps around in a drunken frenzy of malicious cattiness, but other times it’s made clear Nikki and Tess really care about each other. That gray area is exactly why Burlesque doesn’t work. The movie is the story of a small time girl who goes to LA, falls for a boy, meets an aging star/ mentor, gets tormented by a mean girl and tries to make it on her own. In order to do something that pathetically clichéd right, you either need to put time and effort into making the characters feel like more than just retreads, or you need to pinion them so closely to their personality type that they end up epitomizing small town innocence or heinous superbitch. Like a devilish fairytale, Nikki should be singing about ruining Christina’s life,; instead she’s getting sad-eyed lectures from Tess about cutting back on hard liquor.
With a few more catchy songs, one signature tune and a little less muddle in character personalities, Burlesque could have been a little better than average, which, on the altered and inflated musical scale, would have meant an eternity of VH1 re-runs and impromptu singalongs. But it’s not there. I know this for certain, not because of any of the reasons I already gave, but because two drag queens sitting in front of me, one dressed as Christina and one dressed as Cher, said they thought it was “okay”. Adjusting for extreme favoritism and bias, they may as well have called it marginally better than terrible. I’d have to agree.