Ali (Aguilera) is a smalltown girl who heads to the big city and finds her spiritual home in a revue theatre called Burlesque, run by singer and dancer Tess (Cher). Working as a waitress, Ali learns the routines and dreams of a spot on-stage, while developing a friendship with bartender Jack (Gigandet).
Very occasionally, there are films that can only be enjoyed ironically. This is one of them. If writer-director Steven Antin and his team set out to parody the little-girl-with-a-big-dream trope, they are filmmakers of considerable skill. If this is a straightfaced story, then it’s on near-Glitter or Showgirls levels. But unlike those two turkeys, whether you’re laughing with this or at it, Burlesque has enough energy and pizzazz to keep you laughing throughout.
Christina Aguilera, in her debut starring role, is decent as smalltown girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Ali Rose, who comes to LA with dreams of working as a singer and dancer. She pitches up at Cher’s financially troubled but artistically sound theatre The Burlesque Lounge and finagles her way into a waitressing job. It’s instantly obvious to us that she should be on stage singing, but Cher and her partner Sean (Stanley Tucci) are too busy dealing with ripped costumes and catty star Nikki (a brunette Kristen Bell) to notice. There’s a love interest in bartender/would-be composer Jack (Cam Gigandet), and sinister property developer Marcus (Eric Dane) is circling both the theatre and Ali, and that’s all you need to know to figure out every beat of the plot. The script, too, is pretty awful: in a story as campy as this, you need more than one killer line, and the best on offer here is Nikki’s defiant assertion that, “I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!”
The film’s strength is less in the plot itself and more in the cast’s commitment to the idea of its plot. So Cher (almost) frowns and (definitely) pouts as the financial troubles mount, heedless of the fact that cutting the club’s marabou-and-sequins budget alone would solve her problems once and for all. Aguilera, in a perversely underwritten lead role, transcends her paper-thin part every time she’s let loose — and kills in the musical numbers — while Dane’s glares and Gigandet’s grins keep the whole overly complex structure moving along. Tucci, as is now tradition, quietly steals every scene he’s in and injects some much-needed humour into the at times po-faced efforts at drama. It ain’t art, but the cast, with help from cinema’s cheesiest-ever seduction scene and some hella good dance numbers, just about ensure you won’t lose interest.
Intentionally or not, it might be the comedy of the year. The music and dance are thrilling and the costumes saucy enough to satisfy, but the whole is so camp and clichéd that it must be deliberate. Right?