Sunday, November 28, 2010

Burlesque (2010)

I wouldn't say Burlesque is a good movie, but the music is fun, solid and performed very well. Traditionally, musicals aren't long on plot, but the dramatic sequences in this one are flimsier than most. This is a story that belongs on the stage, not the screen. Still, Christina Aguilera is great while singing and dancing and sweet and credible in her acting moments. Cher is underserved by the script, which is neither realistic, nor outrageous enough in its lack of realism, to make great entertainment.

Christina Aguilera's Ali leaves a dead-end life in Iowa and heads to "Hollywood," to make it big. Although this movie is set in the present day, the characters have sensibilities that would have seemed phony in a 1940 B-flick. It's one thing to present a formulaic story, but shouldn't the formula be contemporaneous with the period?

Looking for a job, Ali has no luck responding to the ads she finds in Variety. But seeing a costumed woman on a fire escape, she becomes intrigued (why I don't know) and wonders into a small Burlesque club. Once she sees the dancers on the stage, she's instantly mesmerized. Even in its heyday, burlesque had its sordid side. Fast forward 70 years later and the luster has surely worn off. The performers in this particular burlesque aren't even actually singing. They are lipsynching to old classics. We learn that the owner (Tess) doesn't bother with letting them actually sing, because that's not what her patrons are there for. They only want to see the skimpy costumes and suggestive dance moves. So, if Ali has showbiz in her blood, Tess' Burlesque club would not seem to be the ideal place to spill it.

I'm more nostalgic than the next guy, so the thought that a burlesque club like Tess' might actually exist somewhere is actually exciting. Heck, I'd like to think that Club Lingerie where Cher first danced with Sonny on Sunset Blvd. and Wilcox in the sixties was still up and running, but it's not and if it was, in the glare of the 21st century spotlight, we'd quickly see that what we thought was gilt was just chipped lead paint.

Before television, a girl from Iowa might be lured in by the bright lights and sparkly costumes of burlesque, because she'd have nothing to compare it to. But with the advent of tv (not to mention the internet) you don't have to visit a place to know it exists. Having seen Vegas, Monte Carlo, Paris, London and New York on the small screen why would anyone, especially someone as confident in her talent as Ali, set all of her aspirations on getting a gig in a Los Angeles dive?

As soon as she enters the burlesque, our heroine not only sees it as a stepping stone for her ambitions, but as a pinnacle. Ali immediately wants to know who she has to sleep with to get up on that stage. The friendly bartender Jack tells her that Tess, the owner, is the one she should be talking to. When Ali finds Tess she is told to get lost. Resourceful, she refuses to leave, but instead starts waiting tables for free just to be allowed to keep hanging around. Tess is resigned to having her as a waitress, but wants her nowhere near the "talent." Tess' resistance is just as confusing as Ali's determination. Tess is not running a broadway theater. She has not backers to please, no box office to speak of (admission is $20) and the girls working on her stage don't seem to possess an inordinate amount of talent. Ali's pretty enough. Why wouldn't Tess give her a chance or at least let her audition to see if she had anything to offer.
It would take less energy to see Ali in action than it would to keep rebuffing her. I understand that having an overlooked understudy become a breakout star is a tried and true plot, but no one is going to become a star in this dinky burlesque club that time has passed by. The whole idea that Ali is coveting the spotlight in this joint is comical and that Tess' is jealousy guarding it is hysterical.

Tess is not the only obstruction. Kristen Bell plays her familiar shrew, only raven-haired. Her Nikki feels threatened by Ali's emergence.

Ali will not be deterred. When she insists upon dancing for Tess, Tess is charmed, if not blown away, and makes her a back up dancer. Tess' strong maternal instincts quickly draw her to the lonely girl. The inevitable happens. Tess fires her drunken star performer and orders an unprepared Tess to take her place. She doesn't bother to say, "you've going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star," only because she really doesn't think Ali has that much in her. But when the DJ leaves his post and Ali has nothing to lipsynch, she unleashes her masterful voice and enthralls everyone. Tess immediately decides to build the entire show around her.

Meanwhile, Ali has become roommates with the friendly bartender. He's got a girlfriend in NY, which, I guess, is the barrier to their budding love. It's really hard to say. Their romance is not played for passion. Jack thinks she looks good in a short nightshirt, but there's no real sexual tension between them. Indeed, she thought he was gay when they first met. Most Hays Code restricted lovers are far less chaste than these two. The banter they share is mild. The heat non-existent. They do enough to make you smile, but not enough to make you care.

When Tess' loyal assistant Sean advises Jack that Ali is beautiful on the inside, not just on the outside, I began to think that writer/director Steve Antin was mistaken about the meaning of PG-13. He apparently thought that only people 12 and under would be admitted. Hey, I know that Aguilera used to be a Mousketeer, but that was 16 years ago.

Eric Dane plays Marcus, the billionaire who wants to (1) buy Tess' club out from under her and, (2) add Ali to his lists of conquests. Frustrated that Jack has continued his long distance engagement, Ali goes out with Marcus, but being a good girl she is more impressed by a pair of Louboutin shoes she spots on one of his party guests than she is with his car, mansion and vast real estate holdings. In modest movie tradition that must be borrowed from Disney, it's not clear whether they ever consummate their relationship, but let's just say Ali keeps a lot of late nights with Marcus, much to roomie Jack's dismay. Of course, Jack and Ali eventually come together. She is particularly impressed when he holds a Famous Amos box over his bare crotch and asks if she wants some cookies. But that's all torn asunder when his ex-fiance shows up and falsely tells Ali that their engagement was never broken and Jack has been lying to her all that time.

Back at the burlesque, like Daddy Warbuck's, the good-hearted Tess is about to lose everything. She refuses to sell her club to Marcus and is unable to get a loan from the banks. They are going to close down her beloved club in a matter of days. Okay, Tess loved the business. I understand that, but I don’t know why she couldn’t take the $1 million check that Marcus was offering and open a nicer burlesque place somewhere else with it. What meant more to her, her show and the girls or particular piece of real estate? I mean, the club was not like an Italian family restaurant her grandfather handed down to her in 1910. Why not just move someplace else and keep the tradition alive in new digs? We'll never know.

Ali finds out that Marcus wants to tear down Tess' club and build a high rise in its place. She concocts a scheme to beat him at his own game and encourages Tess to sell the airspace over her club, so that no one will be able to build over it. Suddenly flush, Tess remodels the burlesque making it bigger and better than -- well, it was never big or bet in the first place, but you get the picture.

The closing number is hot. If there's anything to recommend the movie it's the songs, so in that sense, it is a "musical." However, I grew up admiring the likes of Gypsy with Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. This movie doesn't even give us the satisfaction of seeing "Baby Louise" transform to "Gypsy Rose Lee." Instead, Ali ends up as basically the same kid she was when boarding the bus in Iowa. Don't give me the dancing numbers, but leave out the drama. I want the anger and betrayal, the hurt and comeuppance, those are what actually give a musical voice. If they're absent, just dub it a "concert" and call it a day.

It makes for a nice family film, especially around the holiday season, but it tells an aged story, while lacking the skills of old.

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