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Burlesque Alternates Between Laughable, Spectacular

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Apr 18, 2013
<i>Burlesque</i> Alternates Between Laughable, Spectacular

Release Date: March 1, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: November 24, 2010
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material)

Genre: Drama, Musical

Run Time: 119 min.
Director: Steve Antin

Actors: Christina Aguilera, Cher, Stanley Tucci, Cam Gigandet, Kristen Bell, Eric Dane, Peter Gallagher, Alan Cumming, Julianne Hough

While Disney is rediscovering the strengths of the family-oriented animated musical with Tangled, Sony Pictures has given us the latest musical for mature audiences.

Burlesque, which shares elements of the Oscar-winning Cabaret and Chicago, as well as last year's largely unsuccessful Nine, trots out all the clichés about undiscovered talent making the most of a big opportunity, and when it works, it's spectacular. The musical performances, delivered with appropriate passion, are well filmed by first-time director Steve Antin, shot by Bojan Bazelli (Hairspray, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and edited by Virginia Katz (Dreamgirls). The problem with the film is that its "book"—the dialogue and story that support the musical numbers—is sometimes laughably bad.

The film will play better or worse depending on what you like to see in a musical—a well told story or big-screen, razzle-dazzle music numbers. The best musicals have both, the biggest failures neither. Burlesque splits the difference, although one's tolerance for its musical numbers, often performed in costumes that are very revealing, will test the limits of viewers who might otherwise enjoy the film's visual presentation.

We meet Ali (Christina Aguilera) as she decides to leave her dead-end hometown job (Miranda Lambert's "Makin' Plans," arguably the best song on the film's soundtrack, plays under the scene) in Iowa and head to Los Angeles. Looking for work, she discovers the Burlesque Lounge and finagles a job. Her friendship with bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet), who's engaged to a woman on an extended business trip to the East Coast, leads first to an offer of lodging, and later to a romantic relationship.

Along the way, Ali seizes an opportunity to sing, dance and win over jaded club owner Tess (Cher), who's busy trying to keep the theater afloat while finding a way to pay two mortgages on the property. Her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) begs her to take an offer from a wily businessman (Eric Dane), but once Ali shows she can belt it out with the best of them, Tess reorients the club around the dynamic new performer and buys time to find a way to keep operating the club. Ali befriends a pregnant dancer (Julianne Hough) while refining her stage show, but she spends most of her time dealing with the machinations of Nikki (Kristen Bell), who used to be Tess' pet dancer.

Burlesque is something to behold during its musical sequences. Edited in a style reminiscent of Chicago and Nine, with plenty of quick cuts, high energy and the occasional knock-it-out-of-the-park power ballad. The latter song type in particular is suited to Aguilera's and Cher's booming vocals. Indeed, the aging diva gets the movie's biggest show-stopper, "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," but, in a sign of how ridiculous the screenplay is, the number is set up by writer Bazelli as an end-of-the-day rehearsal for the exhausted theater owner.

Aguilera has fun with her numbers, clearly shining more on the stage than she does when reciting standard dialogue. Gigandet might have a future as a model, but acting isn't his strength. Much better is Stanley Tucci as a gay stage manager and confidante of Tess'. The veteran actor continues to accumulate scene-stealing supporting roles and provide a welcome presence in films focused on younger protagonists (Julie and Julia, The Devil Wears Prada).

Burlesque is best seen on a big screen, which suits its larger-than-life ambitions, but the story arc is nothing new. Although it works on the most basic level—we root for Tess to find a way to keep the club open, thanks to Ali's talent—it won't surprise anyone older than a teenager (and many of them will see the story's developments coming a mile away). The film's strength is as a visual extravaganza, but that comes with a major caveat: The dance routines are sexually suggestive and the dancers' outfits quite revealing. The film is rated PG-13, not R, but viewers should go in expecting to see a lot of skin.

Burlesque celebrates determination, grit and a belief in one's own talents and abilities. However, it's also nonjudgmental about all behaviors except Nikki's taste for the bottle. No other positive moral lessons are to be drawn from Burlesque. It's all song and dance, spectacle and camp, and one more memorable role for Cher. It's she, not Aguilera, who anchors Burlesque and reminds us that some singers can be as effective on-screen as they are on stage.

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  • Language/Profanity:  "Baby cakes"; a joke that a woman looks like a drag queen; "boobs"; "b-tch"; "s-it"; "a-s"; "mother of God"; "swear to God"; "go-da-mit"; "pee"; "screwing' around"; "my God"; "f"-word.
  • Alcohol/Drugs:  Ali works at a bar and serves drinks; several characters smoke and drink at different moments throughout the film; one character has a problem with alcohol.
  • Sex/Nudity:  The performance outfits are often very skimpy and revealing, sometimes drawing attention to breasts, nipples, rear ends, without fully exposing them; lots of rump shaking and provocative dancing; cleavage; kissing; gay and straight characters are shown in bed, but no sex acts are depicted; Ali shown in a nightie; Jack shown with a towel wrapped around his waist; later, he walks naked through his apartment, and his rear end is seen; Ali and Jack then sleep together, but the film cuts to them next to each other afterward; Ali dresses over Jack while he lays in bed; a man is called "Mr. One Night Stand"; club art includes nude images; a remembrance of "one drunk night" and a sexual encounter.
  • Violence/Crime:  A woman strikes a car with a blunt object.
  • Religion/Morals:  A woman takes money from a cash register at work, claiming it's owed to her; a woman jokes with her ex-husband about divorce; a woman is called a "goddess"; a character takes his coffee black, "like my soul"; an out of wedlock pregnancy and an engagement.