Wednesday, April 6, 2011
"Burlesque"-- You Heard Me Correctly
How should a self-respecting film-lover and critic follow up a screening of the stark, masterful "The White Ribbon"? By slumming with Cher and Christina Aguilera in "Burlesque", that's how!
Writing about "Burlesque" after the somber German masterpiece is like hearing Rebecca Black sing "Fridays" at a Metropolitan Opera encore to Wagner's "Götterdämmerung". It felt as if I was suddenly occupying a different planet. But then, after all of that German angst, "Burlesque" might be just what I needed to cleanse the cinematic palate. The contrast between the two films made me appreciate each of them, in their own way, more.
But enough of being serious. "Burlesque" is a modern pastiche of every backstage-musical film ever made since "Broadway Melody" (1929). Cliches abound; without them, the film would cease to exist.
There's a giddy feeling in being able to predict every scene, every line, and not feel completely insulted. It's like attending a singalong in which no one needs subtitles or sheet music, because everyone knows the words.
Even though the film lacks originality or sophistication, there are so many redeeming features that it would be downright mean to be too critical. Sure, many people will find this absurd (and it is); but it's also entertaining, and nicely performed by a cast eager to sink their teeth into this soap-opera musical-revue.
There's Cher, as Tess, the owner of the "Burlesque" nightclub about to be bought and torn down by a smooth developer Marcus (Eric Dane); Stanley Tucci, as Sean, the wisecracking wardrobe guy and utility person in the grandest Thelma Ritter tradition; Peter Gallagher in a throwaway role as Tess' ex-husband and business manager; and Alan Cumming as the sleazy doorman and "emcee" of a stage number of his own.
And of course, there's Ali, the naive Iowa waitress/performer who pulls up stakes to make it in Los Angeles. Christina Aguilera, as Ali, can't bring much range to the wide-eyed girl who weasels her way into a job as a Burlesque cocktail waitress. But when she gets an audition by sheer "pluck" (is there any other way to get an audition?); and when she eventually belts out a tune live (the buxom chorus-girls only lip-sync), Aguilera does a pretty good job carrying the show. She has a strong voice and she is a likable entertainer.
She is the fish-out-of-water with big dreams and undiscovered talent. Until her big break, alone, with no family and nowhere to go, she befriends Burlesque's hunky, eye-linered, bowler-hatted bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet). You know from the first minute that they are destined to become lovers (no spoiler there!) and the fun is in watching it happen, and predicting every step.
Gigandet has dreamy eyes, a nice bod, and is responsible for the hottest product placement I have seen since, maybe, "Austin Powers". I'm still craving Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies.
There are wonderfully bad lines ("I held your head while you threw up everything but your memories!"), and wonderfully showy musical numbers. The choreography strains for Fosse and falls miles short, but the numbers are fast, and they "cut" well. There's energy and the hard work is evident. Even when the melodrama gets laid on thick, you're more likely to react with good humor rather than feeling ripped off. There's a good variety of songs, from old Etta James standards to a few original songs that, I must say, SHOULD have received some Oscar recognition.
It's all toothless, mindless fun, and completely harmless, even as it seems to "borrow" an almost plagiaristic amount of material from other films. When Ali arrives in L.A. and draws an arrow on a postcard of her hotel ("I am here"), and she rips it up and throws it out the window---before you can say Joe Buck, it's a direct copy of "Midnight Cowboy", down to the fast zoom-out from the window to the street below.
There are also fleeting nods to Roxie Hart, down to the hopeful platinum-blonde "projecting" herself into a musical number, a la Renee Zellweger in "Chicago".
I wondered if "Burlesque" would regularly pay homage to other well-known films, but this technique was soon abandoned, with one huge exception.
Many viewers will be constantly reminded of another masterpiece: "Burlesque" steals heavily from "Cabaret". In fact, this movie is "Cabaret" with every drop of menace drained out, and polished to a pop-culture sheen. But those familiar with "Cabaret" will notice the exact "Mein Herr" dance moves, the "Maybe This Time" lighting and cutaway bit of dialogue--In fact, one Kander and Ebb number ("Sitting Pretty") is actually used as instrumental background.
One wishes that those who are unfamiliar with the films that "Burlesque" quotes could be introduced to these classic originals. One hopes that mere robbery isn't being committed.
Normally this would annoy me. But "Burlesque" completely won me over and I didn't really mind its retreads and melodrama. Writer-Director Steve Antin must have known what he was doing, or else he got very lucky to get the tone and performances just right.
It's great to see Cher back on the big screen. In spite of the "work" she's had done, she manages to be marvelous and expressive, and her voice has never been better. Aguilera would seem to have a bright future in this kind of musical, alas a type of film Hollywood almost never makes any more.