Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Burlesque

Dir. Steve Antin
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 120mins

There is a lyric in Burlesque’s closing number that goes “get yo ass up / show me how you Burlesque.” It’s an apt line to end the film (and, for that matter, to begin this review) since it sums up so much about Steve Antin’s flashy musical – one of the few truly original live action movie musicals of the genres new millennium rebirth – so well. Not only does it seem completely in character that this film would create a new word in the English language; burlesque as a verb - they’re, like, pulling a MacGyver! Secondly, it’s apt because it exemplifies how completely out of tune (pun intended) Burlesque is to the actual art of burlesque. Characters sure do “get their ass up” here, but it ain’t in the name of “Burlesque”. Antin’s movie has about as much in common with classic burlesque as Mickey Rooney has with Chinese culture in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And about as much class, too!

If I believed in guilty pleasures then I would probably be willing to consider Burlesque as one, go to my corner and let everyone else debate whether it’s a “good” movie or not (mostly, not). I don’t tend to believe in guilty pleasures, however and I don’t feel one ounce of guilt from enjoying Burlesque and neither should you. I had a riotous good time watching it through its self-lubricated veneer of Vaseline and I’d hazard a guess and say that if you think you’re going to like Burlesque then you will in fact have a great time.

Many may suggest that Burlesque hasn’t much of a plot, and that the barest of plots it does have are hardly worth mentioning, but it has a one all right and Antin, who also wrote the screenplay, works that bad boy like the audience has never seen it before in their life! Opening in Small Town, Iowa where there’s a twinkle in the golden setting sun’s eye, parents name their children Timmy and diner’s close between the lunch and dinner rushes so that undiscovered talents slumming it in the sticks can perform Etta James routines using a sweeping broom as a microphone. An impossibly gorgeous woman by the name of Ali (Christina Aguilera in her screen debut) has somehow not cottoned on to the fact that reality programs live for talents like hers and has only just decided to catch the next bus out of town with a one-way ticket and go to Hollywood. You can tell she’s excited because she sleeps through her arrival; she was so excited she could nap, I suppose.

What follows are a job hunting montage that rivals Dolly Parton in Barnet Kellman’s 1992 small-town-girl-mistaken-for-radio-host romantic comedy Straight Talk for gobsmacking “are they for real” yuk yuks, Ali’s apartment being robbed like someone spliced in a scene from CSI: Los Angeles and Christina Aguilera’s face running the gamut of emotions from “confused” to “slightly confuseder”. Stirring stuff, indeed. Before long she has stumbled across The Burlesque Lounge, a dingy-looking club that’s nestled amongst developing skyscrapers, it’s entrance seemingly tucked away up a fire escape. The only hint this club even exists is the illuminated sign out the front that looks as if it would blow over with a stiff breeze. Oh, let’s not forget the PG scantily-clad woman out the front whose job appears to be to give lusty eyes to anyone that walks by while repeatedly rolling her stockings up and down for no reason. Aguilera’s eyes light up so big she appears to be considering a change of sexuality.

Before long Ali is working in the club as a waitress, serving the drinks that Jack (a bubbly Cam Gigandet) hands her. Audiences watching Burlesque know she’s made for stardom because she can memorise patrons’ order like song lyrics and swings a waiter’s tray like a microphone prop. She’s like Nomi Malone with her ability to know dance routines before they’ve even been taught to her! Except this time Ali is talented whereas Nomi was just a freak with devilish nails. That Ali is talented is, much like most of everything else in the film, not a surprise – casting an unknown might have at least given us some suspense as to how talented, but that’s a minor glitch – although the film has a fun time getting there. Upon entering the club on her first night, Ali watches an elderly woman with frightening-yet-hypnotising cheekbones (imagine Burlesque in 3D if you dare!) perform a song called “Welcome to Burlesque”, surrounded by a parade women who dress like skaters who turn tricks. The camera does anything it can to hide the zombie-like trance Cher’s face has found itself in, including filming through martini glasses, reflections on drum kits and smudgy windows. That Ali doesn’t even flinch at the lyric “It’s not the end of days / it’s just the bump and grind”, while an odd Alan Cumming growls at her from the entrance booth, proves she will have no troubles fitting in.

Of course, Ali’s pipes prove a winning combination for the club, which is going under for the sake of the plot. Perhaps if this mystical Burlesque showwoman – Cher as bi-polar Cher, I mean Tess – didn’t spend so much on hiring a cavalcade of dancers who somehow earn enough to afford speedy sports cars and eat takeaway pizza every night – surely the best paid dancers in LA - then the dance hall wouldn’t be so bankrupt. Alas the plot requires some threadbare tether so we go with it. The crowds start rolling in, as does the offer from a wealthy businessman (Eric Dane as Eric Dane’s Character from Grey’s) to be his wanton sex goddess and maybe also… A STAR.

Yes, it’s all ridiculous and cliché and so are the reactions of people who are at all surprised that a movie titled Burlesque starring Cher and Christina Aguilera is ridiculous and cliché. That’s part of its charm. But comfort food alone isn’t enough and Antin manages to come through with the goods in other areas.

On a technical level there really isn’t much to find fault with unless you’re in a prickly mood. Michael Kaplan’s costume design is especially praise-worthy with its vast array of performance outfits – Cher’s circus ringmaster ensemble, Aguilera’s hands-on-breasts dress and the getup made entirely out of strategically placed pearls are all perfect (again, maybe having your Burlesque performers wear dresses made entirely out of pearls is bad for the bank balance, Cher!) Production designer Jon Gary Steele has fun with the space, pretending the interior of the Burlesque Lounge is a mammoth hall with removable walls, revolving bars and cascading staircases that appear as if from nowhere like out of a Lloyd Bacon movie. I almost expected an adjoining ballroom to emerge just for the sake of it. Sound design, too, is key, especially during “Express”, which all but disintegrates the cinema sound system with its barrage of handclaps, finger snaps and booty slaps.

Aguilera has never been much of a dancer with her best music videos generally being those that focus on a killer imagery hook (“Fighter”, “Dirrty” and “Hurt”.) Here she acts adequately, sings impressively and squeezes out a commendable amount of comic timing. Performances of “I Am a Good Girl” and “A Guy What Takes His Time” (including large rectangular light box in front of her woman parts ala Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, naturally) are far more impressive due to Aguilera’s array of kooky facial expressions and exaggerated diva-DIVA flourishes. The very final shot before the credits role is, perhaps, one of the biggest laughs of the film.

Cher is Cher. Whether she’s lurching around on a stage performing Diane Warren torch ballads (“You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me”, which is fabulous, by the way) or hurling howler dialogue (“how many times did I hold your hair back while you were over the toilet, throwing up everything but your memories?”) at us with the seriousness of a dead puppy, she’s like a divine entity beamed down to Earth to make us all feel moderately less okay for not being as incredible as she. Cam Gigandet comes out of Burlesque smelling like roses, giving the film’s best performance by far. He shows triple the amount of personality than he’s previously been allowed and his strip scene is entertaining not just for his display of skin, but for the charm he brings to it. And in what amounts of a mini reunion of The OC, Peter Gallagher also wanders around the set every now whenever the plot requires it. It’s enough to make me wish Seth and Ryan took a trip up the highway to LA one night and ran into Volchok and Sandy Cohen hanging around a sleazy dance bar wearing mascara and screaming at alien women from Mars. Bless.

Stanley Tucci, meanwhile, acts as if his Nigel from The Devil Wears Prada had taken one too many attacks from Miranda Priestly, moved down to Los Angeles and became the prerequisite gay director of a slightly-risqué dance club. His character gets a surprisingly sweet gay hook-up sequence that I really can’t imagine anywhere else but here… or in a film by Todd Stephens. Kristen Bell pops up occasionally, too, whenever the plot demands someone to scoff and scowl. And then Diana Agron of Glee appears momentary in a role so brief I can’t believe Andre Braugher wasn’t cast.

If Burlesque has any surprises up its sleeve – and I maintain it has several – it’s biggest is that Steven Antin somehow managed to insert a plot about, of all things, air rights. If you’ve ever wanted a movie in which Cher fiercely battles big business by blackmailing development tycoons to purchase air then Burlesque is as close as you’re gonna get. Bob Fosse and Rob Marshall, eat your hearts out!

Simply, Burlesque is the sort of movie in which a black dancer is named Coco Puff and another actually says “go cuckoo for Coco Puffs!” It is a movie in which Cher all but gives her gaggle of real life impersonators a step-by-step guide to applying make-up to look just like her! It is a movie where Christina Aguilera calls Kristen Bell a drag queen without a hint of irony. It is a movie where Cher’s character consoles a dancer who lost her contact lenses by spouting “if you fall off the stage – legs extended, boobs out!” and in which musical sequences defy space, time and logic. I’m so glad it is. Post-screening I spent hours changing my mind as to what my favourite scene was; Burlesques is the gift that keeps on giving!

Being a musical though the most important aspect is, indeed, the music and I was so pleased to discover the music here is top notch. Aguilera’s concerts have always been dotted with old school classics, notably by Etta James, and here she gets to belt out a couple, too. The real jackpot is, surprisingly, in the original material. “I Am a Good Girl” has a delicious camp purr, “Bound To You” is a big diva ballad co-written by Sia and “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” is already an earnest classic, a song so good that Cher could simply sing it 28 times in a row and still make her seventeenth comeback concert a success. That the soundtrack’s producer somehow shoehorns in an Aguilera-led remake of Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” says something, but I’m not quite sure what.

Even having enjoyed 95% of the movie, and the songs in it, still wasn’t enough to prepare for the very 100 per cent rousing showstopper climax. By the time Aguilera sing’s “get yo ass up / show me how you burlesque” in “Show Me How You Burlesque” the film has steered so far away from its already meagre proximity to actual burlesque that there’s no sense in noting it. This film-ending sequence, however, is the film’s standout and proves Antin may actually know what he’s doing behind the camera after all. It’s big, bold and flashy and Antin catches it all. Fancy that, actually being about to see dancers dance in a musical! The song is punchy and the design of the sequence features enough bulbs to light a small town, surrounding dancer upon dancer upon dancer. They just keep popping up out of nowhere! Occupational Health and Safety regulations were surely breached with that trick. How long did they have to wait under those tables? It’s apt that Burlesque goes out in a blaze of excessive, toe-tapping glory. It will put a spring in your step, if you’re so inclined, and, personally, I felt like I was a high for hours after. I instantly burst into a standing ovation with applause.

I enjoyed Burlesque more than any other movie I’ve seen in a long time. I almost wished I had a remote so I could rewind scenes right there in the cinema and as the credits started to roll I wanted the film to start right back on up again. I would have stayed for as long as they were willing to allow me. Guilty pleasure? Nah! I can only dream of more movies having this one’s moxy. Can’t get past the cliché of the pregnant dancer or the dialogue that reads like anti-poetry – “who wrote that?” “I did.” “You wrote that?” – then don’t bother, but as Burlesque tucked into a lip-synced musical sequence of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend” I couldn’t help but wonder if those reacting against the tireless parade of camp on display would feel the same way about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 2010. It has a musical sequence set inside a gay nudist gym, after all. !!!+


Janice said...

Glenn, I know other folks have mentioned this but - the white on black (or pale grey on black) annoys my eyes so much I can't even get through more than one paragraph of it, so I end up scanning lazily. Which is too bad, because you obviously put a lot of time and effort into this review.

I actually do miss the blue/green backgrounds. Maybe they were soothing, or you were the only one doing them, and so I associated the look specifically with you. Change is good and all - maybe not so much contrast, though.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I've only seen two moviues this year where every one of my friends and I agreed that we loved it: The Social Network. And Burlesque. And considering the fact that half of my friends were initially dragged to Burlesque unwillingly, that's saying something.

Oh my God, and I love Christina's face when she sees her new, made-up self. A whorish makeover? It's what I always dreamed! *cue tears*

Michael said...

This review is so incredibly accurate. I have only ONE friend that would see it with me, everyone else thought it was a joke or something. Um.. DUH. It's a movie called "Burlesque" and it stars CHER. And Christina Aguilera!? How can you not enjoy it?

Also, I felt the same way you did at the end of the movie: Most fun I've had in a movie theater for a long time and I just wanted to rewind the entire experience.

Billy D said...

Direction is top notch--I wish other directors (ahem, Rob Marshall) would take a tip from him and actually film musical numbers WIDE and stay on a shot for more than 3 seconds, so we can actually SEE the damn choreography instead of close ups of faces with which we are already incredibly familiar. Musicals are not about quick cuts at all, and I don't understand why people don't get that.

Don't you wish they had filmed a sequence to "The Beautiful People?" Could have been incredible. And did you love the inexplicability of a live band for a club supposedly devoted to canned lip-synching?

Jake said...

Hated the film, but love this review.