From the opening scene of Burlesque, we can see there’s trouble ahead, artistically speaking. Amid an odd-filtered mistiness—the old Vaseline-on-the-lens effect, which hazes over the entire film—Christina Aguilera appears as a gifted and frustrated small-town girl, on the brink of heading to Los Angeles. Once there, she stumbles into a proudly retro Sunset Strip nightclub, called Burlesque, run by the veteran show queen Cher (a boon to the cosmetic surgery industry), and into a retro yarn borrowed from the annals of Hollywood’s musicals-about-musicals. Bless Aguilera and Cher’s hearts and singing/dancing acumen, but neither puts in much more acting effort than this film’s lame script requires. On the part of the principal female leads, there is no rising above the material here, except when it comes to the song-and-dance numbers.
But that’s just the bad news upfront. On the good-news side of the equation, Burlesque may be this year’s most prime candidate in that dubious achievement category in American film: the movie so bad it’s good. (Well, maybe not good-good, but it’s perversely enjoyable.) Though not on the scuffling level of the lowbrow classic Showgirls, Burlesque seems almost knowingly, winkingly cheesy. Melodrama rears her glossy head in a plot about the farm girl making good, traversing the world of men, as well as the subplot of developer’s avarice, which puts a sinister spin on the club’s welfare.
In more than one way, Burlesque basks in the self-generated glow of its historicism. At root, the story taps into the vintage tradition—and calculatedly skimpy wardrobe—of the French Can-Can and Weimar Republic, all centered around the all-important, enclosed setting of the club/womb/demimonde. Moreover, and in more American terms, the film owns up to the strong influence of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, as well as the old-school genre of Hollywood films based on musicals, full of backstage intrigue and business bogeymen. (The evil landlord is ever lurking, threatening art, sex, and the twain thereof.)
Not to make too much ado about it, but Burlesque keeps us tuned in despite—and probably partly because of—its faults. Kitsch is funny that way.