Burlesque: Cher and Aguilera in Trashy, Campy Musical

Cher has the looks of a grand diva and Christina Aguilera has the big voice to belt out the songs in “Burlesque,” writer-director Steven Antin’s dazzlingly ostentatious, deliberately cliché-ridden musical. A guilty pleasure par excellence, “Burlesque” pays homage to the world of showbiz as most viewers would like to know and remember it, as a glitzy, seductive, and competitive milieu that brings out the best (and the worst) in individuals who need to be on stage.
Making his feature directorial debut, Antin is too savvy and sophisticated a writer to know that the pleasure of watching his musical is not in the nominal tale, which has been done thousands times before, but in the specific telling and in the appealing performers. And so, with little interference in the mode of performance of Cher and Aguilera, he lets the two femmes, who are already icons of pop culture, do what they do best.
Antin also knows that camp has traditionally been associated with gay subculture, and that the hardcore viewers of such fare are gay men. As a result, he imbues the entire saga with an overtly, but inoffensive gay-campy sensibility, one that should appeal to broad audiences as well.
Before the movie premiered, rumors in town spread that “Burlesque” is as excessive and preposterous as the scandalous and notorious 1995 backstage nusical meller, “Showgirls.” Rest assured that, for better or for worse, it is not. For one thing, Antin doesn’t possess the visual know-how and stylistic devices of director Paul Verhoeven, and for another, he is much more respectful of the public persona of his leading ladies than Verhoeven ever was.
Christina Aguilera plays Ali, a provincial small-town (what else) girl with a big voice—and bigger dreams. Like countless girls before her (Remember Ruby Keeler’s Peggy Sawyer from “42nd Street” and Judy Garland’s Esther Blodgett from “A Star Is Born”) she leaves behind whatever she has and heads for uncertain future in the entertainment capital, Los Angeles.
Ali become even more intrigued and motivated, when she stumbles upon the Burlesque Lounge, a shabby theater about to present a musical revue, where she meets Tess (Cher), the tough club’s proprietor, a femme who’s been around as is evident in her combo of glamour, toughness, and forthrightness.
With a good deal of chutzpah—and basically nothing to lose–Ali talks herself into a cocktail waitress job. Tess is known for her skills as headliner and star-maker, and soon Ali becomes a wide-eyed sponge to The Burlesque’s captivating acts.
The combined allure of outrageously sexy costumes, bold choreography, and opportunity to perform to a live and appreciative audience is undeniable for a naïve but bright ingénue like Ali, who’s simply enraptured by the new milieu and its inhabitants.
Deep down Ali knows that she was born to perform, that the stage is where she is meant to be, and that burlesque is her calling.  She therefore vows to herself to be on stage someday, to make it really big.
As Ali’s ultimate goal is ultra-familiar and ultra-predictable, director Antin smartly focuses on the journey to success, on the process rather than end result. The film’s second reel depicts how Ali gets to know and navigate the theater’s intricate and complex interpersonal relationships.
While cultivating friendship with a featured dancer (Julianne Hough), she creates an enemy in a troubled, jealous performer (Kristen Bell). Then there is Jack (Cam Gigandet), a handsome bartender and musician, who offers a sympathetic ear (and more).  He takes Ali in as a temporary roommate to help her get her financial footing.
With the help of Sean (Stanley Tucci) the gay sharp-witted stage manager, and the club’s gender-bending host named Alexis (Alan Cumming), Ali makes her way from the periphery of the bar to center-stage. Quite expectedly, her triumph turns out to be both personal and collective.  Ali’s huge, spectacular voice and acquired showmanship bring the Burlesque Lounge back to its former glory.  The triumph gives hope to Tess that she won’t have to succumb to the demands of her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) and sell the place to a Marcus (Eric Dane of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”), a charismatic entrepreneur with several agendas.
The show must go on: As Ali’s star rises, the Burlesque Lounge reaffirms its status as a place that titillates, fascinates, dazzles, and fulfills the dreams of numerous aspiring girls like her; I sort of expected to see at the end another small-town girl arriving at the place (a la “All About Eve'”).
Visually, the movie is lurid and even garrish as befit the story’s physical setting.  As director, Antin relies too much on montage, fast cutting and pacing of the song-and-dance numbers; there are too many sshots of Aguilera’s mouth.  Stylistically, the movie is imitative of “Cabaret,” albeit without the savviness and skillfulness that the late and great Bob Fosse had imbued his landmark 1972 musical movie. In moments, “Burlesque” brings to mine Rob Marshall’s “Dreamgilrs,” whose editor also cut Antin’s picture.
I began my review with labeling “Burlesque” as an intentionally campy guilty pleasure, and I’d like to offer some concluding remarks about camp as a form of histrionics, as a case of displaying good taste of what’s considered to be “bad taste.” 
Camp is no longer confined to gay audiences: It has been accessed and appropriated by the general public. In the 1940s and 1950s, camp was a marginal subculture, a style that risked criticism, ridicule, and censure. As a distinct sensibility, camp began to spread in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a result of the operation of various socio-cultural and sexual-political forces. At present, camp sensibility, as evident in Hollywood movies and TV soaps, is fully democratized due to our changing attitudes toward gender and sexuality and a considerable liberation of censorship rules. The ever-growing impact of the cultural industries, and the new marketing strategies to disseminate their products, have made camp sensibility familiar and acceptable to the mass audience.
Which means that Screen Gems/Sony should expect healthy box-office numbers when “Burlesque” opens on November 24, in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Cast
Tess – Cher Ali
Christina Aguilera
Marcus – Eric Dane
Jack – Cam Gigandet
Georgia – Julianne Hough
Alexis – Alan Cumming
Vince – Peter Gallagher
Nikki – Kristen Bell
Sean – Stanley Tucci
Credits
A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems presentation of a De Line Picture production.
Produced by Donald De Line.
Executive producers, Dana Belcastro, Stacy Kolker Cramer, Risa Shapiro.
Directed, written by Steven Antin.
Camera, Bojan Bazelli.
Editor, Virginia Katz.
Music, Christophe Beck.
Music supervisor, Buck Damon.
Production designer, Jon Gary Steele; art director, Chris Cornwell; set designers, Patte Strong-Lord, Jim Tocci; set decorator, Dena Roth.
Costume designer, Michael Kaplan.
Sound, David R. B. MacMillan; supervising sound editor, Richard Yawn; re-recording mixers, Andy Koyama, Chris Carpenter, Bill W. Benton.
Special effects supervisors, John Frazier, Tommy Frazier. Visual effects supervisor, Rocco Passionino.
Visual effects, Zoic Studios.
Stunt coordinators, Chad Randall, Troy Gilbert.
Choreography, Denise Faye, Joey Pizzi.
Associate producers, Geoff Hansen, Bazelli.
Casting, John Papsidera.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 116 Minutes.