Burlesque knocks Sex and the City 2 off the pedestal with its campy dialogue, fierce musical bravado and beyond-over-the-top costumes and dance routines. And that’s not even counting Cher as Tess, the owner of a sassy but classy burlesque bar on the Sunset Strip. I’m happy to say that the thoroughly entertaining Burlesque is much more Chicago than Showgirls, although it has plenty of inspiration from both.
Christina Aguilera does a nice job with her first starring role (she’s a lot more likable than Beyoncé, for instance) and she echoes a young Goldie Hawn at times as Ali, an Iowa waitress with Hollywood dreams and pipes of steel. I feel bad for the swanky Roosevelt Hotel, where Ali lands after getting off the bus — they make it look like a flophouse — but it was clearly more cinematic than the Super 8 Motel where she really would have crashed.
After going through a whole Backstage Magazine’s worth of auditions, Ali stumbles onto Burlesque, the club Tess runs with her ex Vince (Peter Gallagher) and gay best friend Sean (Stanley Tucci, naturally). Ali immediately catches the eye of hunky bartender/songwriter Jack, played by Cam Gigandet (now if that isn’t a porn name, what is?), but Ali assumes from his Adam Lambert-worthy guy-liner that he’s gay. It’s worse: he’s engaged, although his fiancée is a self-absorbed actress who is doing a New York show for the foreseeable future.
Ali charms her way into a waitress gig at the club, then practically forces Tess and Sean to watch her audition. Like Nomi Malone, she knows all the steps and manages to piss off the show’s star sex kitten Nikki, played by a brunette Kristin Bell. Dancing with the Stars dancer Julianne Hough goes red-haired as Georgia (apparently Xtina had a rider in her contract... no other blondes allowed!), another stand-out in the troupe who wouldn’t mind Nikki taking a Cristal Conners-like spill down the stairs. Ali doesn’t need such melodramatics; her voluminous voice blows the drunken diva off the stage in seconds flat.
Burlesque is an old-fashioned high-energy showbiz tale that barely has time to let dark clouds rain on its saucy, deliciously retro fun. Ali’s flirtatious relationship with Jack is a little cutesy, and the inevitable point where someone tells Ali fame has changed her is just as clunky as you would expect. You’ll also go “Huh?!” when you hear Jack’s big song. It doesn’t sound at all like the new-agey piano jazz he played for Ali earlier. But when Xtina sings, just like when Cher graces us with her great numbers, Burlesque comes alive with gaytastic fabulousness. Why there's even a number with Alan Cumming sure to give you Cabaret flashbacks!
Written and director by Steve Antin, Burlesque bumps and grinds its way on screen and into your heart with a confident sense of fun that was lacking in most other recent movie musicals (take Rent or Nine… please!). It’s a relief that, while we’d all love a Showgirls for the new Millennium, Burlesque isn’t it. It is a flashy Christmas present to show queens one and all, so let’s all give thanks for a holiday miracle.
UPDATE: Burlesque is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.