Pay no attention to the reviews disappointed that Burlesque isn't more of a disaster -- this movie is the real deal, a spectacle in every sense and connotation of the word, an immediate camp classic that will only get better with time (as camp does, according to Susan Sontag's holy text "Notes on Camp": "Things are campy, not when they become old--but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt"). This thing is a miracle of providence, first for having made good on its trailer (released to a round of "I hope this is the new Showgirls" Internet anticipation -- it isn't, but it comes impressively close enough to that hyperbolic yearning) and now it must (and easily will) live up to its legacy as a cherished artifact. In 10 years' time, the people who blasted this over-the-top marvel will eat their words or pretend that they were never said to begin with. I have no doubt of this -- I was in the theater opening weekend of Showgirls and fell in love immediately. I knew then, and I know now. I live for these moments. Burlesque is going to happen, whether we try to make it or not.
Time is already very much in Christina Aguilera's favor as she makes her motion-picture debut fresh off a big-budget bomb of an album, Bionic. That disc was her first real commercial misstep and were Burlesque a straightforwardly quality film, it could have resurrected her unscathed. Because it is not and because she is particularly terrible (wondrously, hilariously terrible!), it pushes her further in the hole. Christina Aguilera is officially a pop underdog, and I have no choice but to root for her and adore her (until she's back on top and back annoying me with that guttural groaning -- at this point, it almost sounds charming!). She spends the first quarter of this film squinting and brushing away cobwebs of confusion as she walks through the Los Angeles burlesque club she so wants to headline at, despite knowing nothing about anything (she's from a small town back east, obviously). Christina's character Ali is so entranced by the show without any irony that she's the simplest person in any of the 3,000+ theaters this is playing in. Christina clearly has been made to project everything as broadly as possible and by "everything," I mean the four emotions she's capable of conjuring (wonder, despair, bitchiness and joy).
Indeed, director Steve Antin seems to be going for an old-school musical feel in every way, including the way the characters relate to each other and us (they don't need musical numbers to articulate exactly what they're feeling at any given moment...but the musical numbers don't hurt, either!). For this reason, it is actually Cher who fares the worst here, since she's such a natural actress. You can see her struggling against the Antin's stilted constraints for her Tess character at every turn (her improvising sticks out like a sore reconstructed cheek). She hasn't appeared in a film since 2003's Stuck on You and...really? She was roused from her tomb for this? Regardless of her spectacular failure here, at least she's Cher (really her status and essence are enough to paradoxically forgive the miscasting). Moreover, at least she is Cher with her Cher face, which looks like it's mourning all the pulling, lifting and injecting that's been done to it.
A PG-13 counterpart of the NC-17 Showgirls, Burlesque accordingly has an excessively bizarre relationship with sexuality. All the smiling snatches are put away for safe-keeping (a line in one of Christina's several sound-alike numbers -- "Gonna tease them till they're on the edge" -- is the dirtiest thing said in the movie). "Slut" is an epithet and something to strive against -- one of the burlesque dancers gets pregnant but ends up getting engaged and then married (a needless detour in this two-hour string of needless detours and predictable cruising). She's not perfect, but still far more respectable than a knocked-up single-mother stripper. Ali runs from Cam Gigandet's character Jack after crashing with him and then finding out that he's not gay. It doesn't matter to her that it's pouring outside -- the better to cleanse the filth of temptation. He eventually seduces her (duh!) by walking around his apartment shirtless and then totally naked (we're treated to several shots of his butt, shockingly). It is not until he backpedals by donning a sheer pair of pajama bottoms that she truly gets turned on, though! Their sex scene is, of course, a montage with all the good bits cut out. Leading up to this, she's traipsed around his apartment in first a shirt without a bra, then just a bra, lest you forget that this girl is a living burlesque show 24/7, onstage or off.
Also burlesque-esque is the treatment of Stanley Tucci's Sean character -- the film flirts with his sexuality (is he in love with Cher in a straight or gay way?) before confirming that yes, he is indeed gay. When Ali busts into his house after he's slept with a much younger buck, whose name he doesn't know (likewise for the buck), Ali is clearly disturbed, not that there's anything wrong with any of this. She makes them coffee while Sean jokes about his mom being named "John." Those crazy gays! What Athena was to a forehead, they are to penis heads, apparently.
It is the way that Burlesque seems to understand what it is portraying that keeps it from being something as pedestrian as a film that's so bad it's good. "A humorous theatrical entertainment involving parody and sometimes grotesque exaggeration," is how Wikipedia defines the word "burlesque," and how anyone could define the film Burlesque. In light of Sontag's assertion that camp is "the love of the exaggerated, the 'off,' of things-being-what they-are-not," Burlesque is lovable as a matter of course. It is a match made in ridiculous heaven, an inevitable collision that merely had to be facilitated.
That is not to say it is perfect, of course. In addition to everything else already mentioned, the movie has a tendency to pick up and drop plot points seemingly randomly (there's at least a 30-minute stretch with no Cher in sight -- I forgot about the fact that she was in jeopardy of losing the club she owns, which given the broadness of the setup, of course she is and of course she doesn't). It is wildly inconsistent, at times shot with a hand-held cam for...what reason exactly? To add some grit to the living cartoon characters and their sumptuously colored surroundings? The non-performance songs are real head-scratchers, with Madonna's "Ray of Light" featured heavily in a rehearsal montage, Alphaville's "Forever Young" and Boston's "More Than a Feeling" played at the wedding reception (people dance to the latter -- hard) and, most curiously, Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You" played as Ali gets to know Eric Dane's Marcus, a wet-noodle antagonist who is obsessed (absolutely obsessed!) with his view of Los Angeles. (As a result, he is the owner of prime "air rights," and as a result of that, the phrase "air rights" is spoken what feels like 5,000 times). I forgot that Alan Cumming was even in this, as he shows up to greet Ali at the club's door and then again about an hour later to perform a number laced with bawdiness and double entendres. I think he too forgot he was in this, too, as he appears to think he was cast in a remake of Cabaret.
The dialogue is first rate, which is to say, hilarious. Here is an excerpt of an actual exchange that occurs as Jack noodles on his guitar (songwriter + singer = a doy-doy-doy of a final number, btw):
Ali: That's beautiful. Who wrote it?
Jack: I did.
Ali: You did? It's really good.
Seriously. Elsewhere, Ali causes a major (social) burn when she tells Kristen Bell's less-than-darling Nikki character that she looks like a man. She kills it with a trans joke! Cher gets the best lines, though, at one time asking Nikki, "How many times have I held your hair while you have thrown up everything but your memories?" In the next breath, there's a mention of Nikki eating tequila on her Cheerios -- I could practically hear Ke$ha's teeth clamping around her fist in jealousy. Most hilariously is Cher's big number, "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," which is also Tess' big number (in this way, ever the cinematic coquette, Burlesque kinda-sorta becomes a musical where the song pushes forward the story and isn't merely the performance of a fictional performer). Crestfallen over another failed attempt to save her club from uncertain doom, she sits backward on a chair and starts screaming at the audience as a power-ballad backing attempts to keep up. If this is a climax, it's one we're going to feel for the entire three minutes and thirty seconds, damn it. This show-schlocker includes just about every I-will-survive-cliche imaginable except for, "I will survive." Among them:
- Feeling broken
- Barely holding on
- There’s just something so strong somewhere inside me
- I am down but I’ll get up again
- Don’t count me out just yet
- I’ve been brought down to my knees
- And I’ve been pushed way past the point of breaking
- I’ll be back...on my feet
- This is far from over
- I’m gonna stand my ground
- You’re not gonna stop me
- Don’t count me out so fast
- I’m down now, but I’ll be standing tall again
- Times are hard
- I was built tough
- I’m gonna show you all what I’m made of
- I’m not going nowhere, I’m staying right here
- You won’t see me begging
- I’m not taking my bow
- Can’t stop me
- It’s not the end
and, of course:
- You haven’t seen the last of me
(Only about 30 words remain in the lyrics that are not covered by the cliches above.)
The colliding knowingness and incompetence is what makes Burlesque a true treasure. I've said this several times and I'll say it several more: the best camp is that which has ambiguous intent. Burlesque isn't so bad it's good because it's trying to be, nor is it because it's so serious in its attempt that it is a hilarious failure -- it exists in a glorious limbo between the two. Ultimately, it is impossible to know if everyone is aware of just how silly this whole thing is coming off. I look forward to pondering it for years to come.