Movie Review: Burlesque

My one and only new year’s resolution is to watch more movies. In 2012 I saw plenty of TV shows, but watched shockingly few films, especially for someone who wants to make a living making films.

Burlesque Onesheet

What better/worse place to start than 2010’s Burlesque? For the first time I watched this stunningly . . . stunning spectacle. I laughed at all the wrong places, cried nowhere, and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

Burlesque starts out – where else? – in a small town, where Aguilera’s Ali quits her dead-end job, closes the restaurant, and immediately gets up on a chair (the first of many) and starts singing. The song serves as montage music: we watch her pack all her worldly goods in a suitcase, find a little apartment in LA, put all her money in the second-most-obvious place, and head out to find some bright lights. This song, coming less then three minutes after we fade into the movie, is the first indication of what’s going seriously wrong. We could possibly have gotten into the movie and even felt for Ali if the song weren’t overproduced to the hilt. Whoever mixed it set everything to ‘as big as possible;’ Ali is singing in a tiny restaurant, but the audio is obviously coming from a gigantic empty concert hall, albeit one with decent acoustics. This makes Ali’s later criticism of lip-syncing all the more unintentionally hilarious. When you have someone who can belt like Aguilera, just let her belt, don’t feel the need to amp up the echoes, reverb, and everything else simply because your production tools have the option.

Back to the bright lights. Ali grudgingly gives Alan Cumming (more on him later) $20 to get into the Burlesque lounge. She proceeds to accomplish four Meet Cutes within five minutes, surely a record. First she flirts with Jack, the hunky, presumably gay bartender, then she meets Cher/Tess the Burlesque owner, endears herself to Sean (Stanley Tucci) the enuch-esque stage matriarch, and incurs the ire of Nikki (Kristin Bell). We don’t worry too much, because this is the kind of ire in heterosexual romance movies which always turns to love within twenty minutes. Because it’s platonic, it takes the length of the film to finish its arc in grudging respect.

The look of utter . . . looking, on their faces.

Nikki goes on to perform while Ali goes back to the bar, picks up a tray, and starts serving. In a film where much is made about lip-synching, and Nikki is the biggest proponent of it, you’d think they would have gotten someone better for Bell’s number. But I digress. During the number, Ali scootches around tables, kicking up her high-heeled shoes every so often to the music to remind us she belongs on a stage.

To summarize between-songs plot: Ali’s apartment is burglarized, she shows up on Jack’s door (because he puts his address on his card? Seriously?), she makes breakfast, he checks out her ass, she is mortified to realize he’s not gay and has a fiancee to prove it, she puts pants on. We discover McSteamy (Or is it McDreamy?) wants to buy Burlesque, we assume for nefarious reasons because he has that hair, those teeth, and a platinum credit card. Tess is in debt up to her eyeballs, and he ex-husband wants the club to be sold. Georgia throws up. Tess and Sean hold auditions to replace the pregnant Georgia, Ali gets chosen on sheer pluck and a photographic memory. (At least no actors or characters are under any delusions Ali is chosen for her dancing skills.) Nikki shows up drunk, Tess replaces Nikki with Ali. Nikki tricks the E! News host DJ into leaving his sound board  so she can pull the plug mid-number. The dancers stand for a moment in shock before Ali opens her mouth and stuns everyone with runs unheard of since some 90s pop star. The crowd goes wild, Alan Cumming makes appropriate faces, and Tess decided to build a show around Ali.

Speaking of Cumming, I kept telling myself he was going to appear in an outrageously awesome camp number. Every thirty minutes they cut to a reaction shot (as must have been contractually obligated when he signed for a whole day of filming), and finally  after an hour and a half he showed up in a placeholder bit which served mainly to background a Real Conversation between Tess and Ali. I can only surmise the filmmakers thought he would disrupt their Serious Art. A shame, a wasteful shame.

859797 - Burlesque

There’s more plot, but if you can figure out approximately where it’s going by now, you should watch . . . maybe not this movie, but definitely more movies. There’s no money, we must save the farm Burlesque, Jack’s fiancee is a terrible person whom Jack dumps in order to expediently make a move on Ali, who has been courted by Rich Entrepreneur Guy.

Speaking of moves, Jack’s attempt at seducing Ali has been called “the worst seduction/sex scene in movie history.” Except, in fact, it was the only actual burlesque act in the film. Jack first appears in absurdly baggy pajamas, then just the pajama bottoms, then nothing at all, coyly covering the ‘important bits’ with a Famous Amos box. Ali both laughs and is titillated, reactions the former numbers failed to elicit from the audience. (Sure, there were burlesque elements in some stage performances, but when Aguilera was dancing with feathered fans and eventually ‘revealed’ herself behind a drum and cymbals set, half of it was in close-ups, and the whole of it was trying far too hard.) Thus, the best burlesque is done by a man, and I find that fascinating. Less fascinating was the PG-13 make-out session and implied sex it led to, but the whole film was underwhelmingly edited anyways, so.

Somewhere in here we get Cher performing the original song ‘You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,’ something so self-aware and legend-making (it made Cher the only act to have a No 1 single on the Billboard chart for six straight decades) one can’t help but appreciate its performance.

The plot proceeds to wrap itself up tidily, and everyone moves on without having been profoundly moved. That wasn’t what we were after here, anyway.*

Big Final Number! Lights! Cameras! Stairs from Nowhere!

Stray Observations

  • I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised when Tess’s admonitions to a drunk Nikki to not drive were not followed with a severe, life-changing car wreck. Especially ironic since Diana Agron has a bit part in the film.
  • Of course Jack experimented with Sean. Probably that same night in Tahoe.
  • Nikki’s tattoo is surely both an homage to pin-up/burlesque girls everywhere, and a sly addition to the ‘Nikki’s a drag queen’ joke (as in the trend/trope that many queens have a tattoo of their alter ego).
  • Oh, Stanley Tucci.
  • Jack’s final number is as musically distant as the first song we heard as it gets.
  • Does that chair ever get a workout or what?
  • *That would be bowlers, glitter, spectacle, muscles, makeup, and Cher.
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