At times it may be cheesy and derivative, all empty holiday-season calories, a bodacious bon-bon ripe with guilty pleasure. But its glitz glitters and its glam is glossy, in a $55 million film lit up with double-diva candlepower of fabulosity and cheeky fun.
So most gays will probably just give in and go see it. Especially since it’s Cher’s first movie in seven years and sex kitten chanteuse Christina Aguilera’s film-star debut. Pairing one aging-but-ageless diva together with an unmistakeable future contender for that hard-won lifetime title is likely an irresistible proposal for many. And first-time writer-director Steve Antin turns out to be no slouch either in this high-camp, low-irony musical valentine to the two’s stylish off-the-charts sass and brass.
Of course we’ve seen this backstage, coming-of-age story before — the plucky small-town girl with a big voice, Ali Rose (Aguilera) pulls up stakes from trailer-park Iowa and heads west to follow her dreams of a Tinseltown career. When she’s leaving town and the man at the bus station asks her, “One way or round-trip?” she says “You’re kidding, right?”
As the film opens, she belts out (in a fantasy precursor to what follows), “Something’s got a hold of me” and “I’ve got a feeling,” but when she reaches Hollywood, at first it’s one rejection after another for back-up singer gigs until she spies Tess (Cher), darkly lit with fading retro glamour.
The gender-bending doorman-bouncer Alexis (the louche Alan Cummings in a cameo) leers at her saying, “We may not have windows but we have the best view on the Sunset Strip,” and yes, it’s the strippers. Ali’s gritty determination to find a new life there is summed up in her question (edited for the film’s PG-13 rating), “Who does a girl have to flirt with to get from here to there?”
Ali finds a world in Tess’s club that enraptures her and something indeed gets a hold of her, whether it’s the outrageous costumes of the striptease-dancers or the bold choreography a la-Bob Fosse. So she fakes her way into a cocktail waitress job and soon shacks up virginally with one of the pretty bartenders, ultrahot and hunky Jack (Cam Gigandet, with smoky blue eyes), whom she thinks at first is gay because of his guy-liner, oblivious to the fact that he is drooling over her.
But soon paired with this poor-but-sincere good boy beau in pursuit of Ali is the bad boy of the movie, the ultra-rich, more-mature but equally hot Marcus (played by Eric Dane, Dr. Mark “McSteamy” Sloan in the TV series “Grey’s Anatomy”), a real estate tycoon who wants to buy out Tess, who faces foreclosure by the bank, and close down her beloved club to build a condo tower. Tess simply has no head for business, telling one associate, “How many times have I told you to never talk business with me during business hours?”
In a cliche mash-up of films from Busby Berkeley’s 1933 lively backstage musical about chorus girls, “42nd Street,” to “A Star is Born” and “Cabaret ” and “Flashdance,” Antin brings virtually nothing new to the story. We know ingenue Ali will get her big chance to dance the hoochie-coochie on the strobe-lit stage, shaking and shimmying with the other girls in a razzle-dazzle montage of big production numbers, bustiers and boas, spangles and sequins, rhinestones and pearls. The film’s story unspools mostly as filler between what becomes, in essence, a series of music videos, shot with quick-motion camera and edited with whipsaw jump-cuts.
What can we say about Cher, who is given two numbers out of 10 on the soundtrack, except to say that she still has the same sensational va va voom, her husky contralto is intact and yes she’s had some work done. Indeed, not a wrinkle can be seen as she reinvents herself bionically yet again, now in her fifth decade in show business, with 100 million albums sold worldwide since she began with Sonny Bono singing “I Got You Babe” in 1965.
Four-time Grammy-winning dance-pop superstar Aguilera, meanwhile, is suitably trashy and flashy as Ali. She co-wrote and performs eight of the tracks on the “Burlesque” soundtrack and is featured in the credits as the film’s executive music producer. Watch her especially when she belts out “But I Am a Good Girl,” putting her booty to work and passing the slinky test with flying colors.
Also noteworthy is the role of the club’s stage manager and also Tess’s confidant and acid-tongued best friend, safely gay of course, though there is an allusion to one night of a sex romp between them long ago. It’s Stanley Tucci, once again cracking wise in a reprise of his 2007 role as Meryl Streep’s gay sidekick in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Together with Tess, he mentors Ali into the world of sizzle and song.
With his striking good looks as boyfriend Jack, the camera really loves Cam Gigandet. Buff and ogle-worthy for the audience, he swaggers through his own private strip-tease for Ali.
Alas, Alan Cummings is mostly wasted in a cameo role as the club’s host, in a nod to his own role as the emcee in the Broadway revival of “Cabaret” for which he won a Tony in 1998.
This overwrought-but-under-written film is in some sense a burlesque itself that could be called so-bad-it’s-good. But for sheer sexy fun it’s a frothy hoot. And for these two dynamic divas, bringing them together is a cheeky stroke of genius and a perfect and spectacular salute.