'I will not be upstaged by some chick with mutant lungs!" shrieks Nikki (Kristen Bell) in Burlesque.
Oh yes you will, my tippling kitten in the black lace catsuit. Oh yes you will.
Those mutant lungs belong to Ali (Christina Aguilera), an improbably wholesome tease from Iowa, who works that corn-tassel hair and those brass pipes in ways that get her promoted from chorus line to headliner.
Burlesque is a preposterous and intermittently entertaining lesson in how to make a movie musical with a little brains and a lot of talent. While the obvious antecedents of Steve Antin's film are 42nd Street, Flashdance, and Showgirls - backstage musicals in which performance is a means of self-actualization - the theme is Ali in Wonderland.
When the Iowa waitress takes the Greyhound to L.A., she falls down a Hollywood rabbit hole that takes her to a nightclub like the one in Bob Fosse's 1935 Berlin in Cabaret. The geography of this joint? South of Gypsy Rose Lee's G-string and north of Bettie Page's garters.
The club, conveniently called Burlesque, is a smoke-filled circus ringmastered by Tess (Cher), that waxworks Cleopatra with the tequila-cured voice. Onstage, women resembling drag queens dance provocatively while lip-synching to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Offstage, fairy godfather Sean (Stanley Tucci), the wisecracking costumer, dispenses arch witticisms.
Ali may not know much, but she knows she wants this. Indifferent Tess, the mother that Ali never had, tells the upstart, "You gotta make me believe that you belong up there!" And when Nikki unplugs the sound system while Ali is lip-synching, the Iowa gal belts out a rafter-raising song that earns her top billing. She sells tickets, but not enough to keep Eric Dane, a real estate developer waiting for Burlesque's mortgage to default, from hoping for foreclosure.
So much for the plot, a floss-thin line on which to hang razzle-dazzle production numbers, many performed on a stage seemingly four times the size of the club itself. From the looks of it, more thought went into Michael Kaplan's inventive costumes - confections of strategically placed sequins and pearl festoons - than the script.
Dancewise, the numbers are more rap-video flygirl than properly burlesque, although Aguilera does perform a suggestive homage to Sally Rand's fan dance. Bojan Bazelli's choreography is seductive and witty. But the editing of the dance sequences is so choppy that everything looks diced and reassembled, the sign of a director who didn't photograph the sequences for cinematic effect.
Songwise, Cher and Aguilera each have a couple of memorable numbers - though not a duet, which would have better meshed their two story lines, and been nice in a passing-the-torch kind of way.
Early in the film Aguilera belts "Something's Got a Hold on Me," commanding the screen and setting the tone for the movie. Amazing voice. But either her acting chops are limited or Antin's screenplay gives her only two moods: Flirty and petulant. She has fun with "But I Am a Good Girl," as the pampered gal wearing a string of pearls and a smile.
Cher sings the film's suggestive title song, "Welcome to Burlesque," and also a Diane Warren number, "Far From Over," a you-haven't-seen-the-last-of-me ballad which will do for her what "My Way" did for Sinatra. Cher is a damn good actress (see: Silkwood, Moonstruck, Mask). Too bad Antin's script gives her few opportunities to show it.
Burlesque is a movie with a definite audience. Namely, anyone who appreciates Cher, Christina, the "Wagon Wheel Watusi," and knows that the art director set the Burlesque Lounge next to the fire escape where Richard Gere proposed to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. You know who you are.