Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Burlesque offers such an archetypal Hollywood narrative that explaining what happens in the film is almost irrelevant.

Waitress Ali (Christina Aguilera) leaves her small town for the bright lights of Los Angeles, where she stumbles upon a burlesque club run by Tess (Cher), who is ably assisted by Shane (Stanley Tucci). There is a talentless, drunken star, Nikki (Kristen Bell), a handsome bartender, Jack (Cam Gigandet), and a rich property tycoon, Marcus Gerber (Eric Dane), who has his eye on the club's prime real estate.

Throw those elements into a bucket of glitter and it shouldn't take a seer to predict Burlesque's order of service.

What's surprising about the film, however, is that in the midst of its distinctly PG double entendres and a series of plot points you can set your watch to, a shamelessly enjoyable film emerges.

Such is the efficiency of the film's exposition that barely a few minutes in we learn of Ali's neglected talent, which has stagnating in Iowa, when she turns the diner's sign from 'open' to 'closed' and belts out Etta James' Something's Got A Hold On Me with the shop's karaoke machine.

The scene sets the tone for Aguilera's performance, which has an earnestness that is ultimately appealing. Alone in the diner, Ali - barefoot, sporting a homespun top and apron - gives it some unselfconscious into-the-hairbrush vocal acrobatics while bathed in a halo of golden light. It's a joyous moment.

From there it's a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, the bright lights of which are signified by a hysterical cover of Marilyn Manson's Beautiful People (sung by Aguilera, of course). It's, not surprisingly, a hoot.

Much of that is a testament to the cast, in particular Tucci, who has as much fun with his role as he did in the irresistible Julie & Julia, and Cher, who lurks in the wings of the club like a fairy dragmother.

(In one scene sure to inspire queens for decades to come, Tess helps Ali with her makeup, and Cher admires Aguilera's youthful face with a barely contained vampiric glee.)

Cam Gigandet, previously given little more to work with than opportunities to smoulder, is charming as Jack, whose arc mirrors Ali's (he writes songs in his spare time but is too scared to air them).

Though they are more than occasionally saddled with dialogue that gives Armageddon's "animal crackers" scene a run for its hokey money - while Jack plays piano, Ali asks "Who wrote that?" "I did", he replies. She bats her eyelashes: "You wrote that?" - Gigandet and Aguilera have an easy, enjoyable screen chemistry.

They use their improbable attractiveness to add crackle to Jack and Ali's unresolved sexual tension as the two friends grow closer; Ali stops in front of the bedroom door, wrapped tight in Herve Leger and wearing Louboutins, completely unaware of her emerging power over her roommate.

In fact, their screwball banter is so much fun, it's almost disappointing when they inevitably get together.

Aurally and visually, Burlesque is not subtle - the sound design is geared for the bump 'n' grind; every floor tom hit, hand clap and arse slap rings out like a cavalry salute. The Express production number is loud enough to leave a ringing in your ears.

Lens flares and sparkles clog the screen, and the cinematography depicts a Los Angeles drenched in a perpetual honeyed sunset. It's the trad Hollywood counterpoint to the naturalistic WeHo of Somewhere and Greenberg.

However there's something in the film's gleeful embracing of Hollywood cliche and pastiche that is intoxicating. The ghost of Julian Marsh shouting "you're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!" infuses every scene.

It's possible the film does its subject matter a disservice by calling itself Burlesque. In truth, it deals with a glorious gumbo of performance styles, with burlesque in either its traditional or modern incarnation the least discernible element - but then, there were already films called Cabaret and Striptease.

(The moment that is most traditionally "burlesque" is a brief, bawdy routine performed by Alan Cumming, in a delicious nod to his Broadway work as The Emcee, that features his character's eating a banana passed backward through the crotch of a doll-like dancer.)

However, it's worth remembering that - in the public eye, at least - the burlesque revival in America had just as much to do with Robin Antin's Pussycat Dolls revues as it did with alternative babes sporting Sailor Jerry tattoos. With that in mind, Burlesque is perfectly factually accurate.

Why bother mentioning if the film is factually accurate or not? Because, like most female-targeted films of the past year or so, Burlesque was doomed from the moment it hit theatres - along with Sex And The City 2 and Eat, Pray, Love - to be subjected to the harsh glare of sexist criticism.

(That the film will also appeal to a gay audience no doubt sends it further into the abyss of critical sneering.)

However, where those films offered capitalist dreck and aspirational colonialism, Burlesque is something different: it has a generous spirit that has been missing from movies for a long time.

Why should it matter if it doesn't present an accurate snapshot of modern burlesque? Very little about the rest of the movie is rooted in reality. This is a world where vomiting in the toilets equals pregnancy, which leads to an ebullient wedding and a happy marriage. Tell that to Blue Valentine's Dean and Cindy.

It's too earnest to have been designed with camp in mind, even if much of the action and dialogue turns out camper than, as the appropriately old-fashioned turn of phrase goes, a row of tents.

Tucci and Cher, perhaps, are aware of the broader implications of the film's chintzy cliches, but everyone else is playing it appealingly straight.

If there's a common denominator amongst most coverage of Burlesque, be it professional or armchair, it's the spectre of Paul Verhoeven's hard, misinterpreted Showgirls. Calling Burlesque "the new Showgirls" betrays both lazy criticism and a hopelessly limited frame of reference.

Burlesque has more in common with 42nd Street and Singing In The Rain than Verhoeven's grim cautionary tale - for one, Ali is actually talented, where Nomi Malone was little more than an interloper with chutzpah, a human mirror held up to America's fascination with empty fame.

(There can certainly be no denying Aguilera's talent, on the musical front at least, though her performance reveals a sly wit beneath even her most guileless moments.)

Indeed, it's an old-fashioned film, where nothing particularly bad happens. Where a more contemporary film might have had Nikki drunkenly speed off to her doom, in Burlesque she turns up for work the next day repentant; where Marcus Gerber might have forced himself on Ali, in Burlesque, they don't even kiss.

It's the sort of film that is so enjoyable I was struck by the desire to rewind it and start watching it again before it had even finished. Yes, at times it's old fashioned and cliched and idiotic, but it's also dazzling and generous and charming in equal measures.

By the end of the film, everybody - except the bad guy - gets what they want, and Burlesque finishes on such a note of hysterical positivity that I screamed with laughter and burst into spontaneous applause.

The lights don't even dim for the credits, which roll - to a reprise of that loopy Beautiful People cover - over the club's stage in full glare.

To borrow from Dorothy Brock - as the film does, with a jackdaw's enthusiasm - Burlesque has gone out there and been so swell it's made everyone hate it.

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