Burlesque (Screen Gems, 2010)

Is it a coincidence that Christina Aguilera’s arrest for public intoxication coincided with the release of her film flop on DVD and Blu-ray? I investigate.

The Story: Burlesque means to bring that cinematic chestnut, the backstage musical drama, to life for today’s hipper-than-thou audience, so for some reason writer-director Steven Antin has stuffed it with antiquated Victorian attitudes that L.B. Mayer would have rejected as cornball for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland confections back in the 30s. Steven was just plain “Steve” when he played the smarmy stud in 1983’s The Last American Virgin and got involved in Jodie Foster’s barroom rape in The Accused (1988) but he’s put all that behind him for this featherweight concoction, which outside of some peekaboo costumes barely grazes its PG-13 rating.

Aguilera debuts as Ali, a frustrated Iowa waitress to who hightails it to Los Angeles to pursue her fantasies of musical stardom. The movie hits a wrong note from the start, as Ali sings about her hopes and dreams in her lonely room. The performance should be sweet and plaintive, all but a cappella; instead it’s miked and mixed to the hilt, as false as the weirdly digitized skyscape that looms over the horizon. I admit I don’t know much about Aguilera other than a few hits but even if her weight, costuming, and hairstyling weren’t fluctuating every other minute or so I’d know her even less from this film, which relentlessly stage-manages her image (and makes her all the more vulnerable for the tabloid tumble she’s taking now).

Ali, you see, is a nice person, incapable of harming flies or harboring a single bad thought. And a nice person is a very boring person to spotlight in a backstage musical drama. Garland is kindly in 1954’s A Star is Born, but also restlessly ambitious; Ali barely pounds the pavements before she’s swept up in the tinsel glamour of the Burlesque Lounge, which is run by Tess, who is played by Cher in her first name-in-lights role since 1999’s Tea with Mussolini. At age 64 and a megastar since the 60s Cher is like a toy rummaged from the attic–beloved, even if the parts no longer move. We expect this cat to bare her claws but, no, Tess is an even nicer person than Ali, at worst only mildly perturbed when a calculating businessman (Grey’s Anatomy co-star Eric Dane) plots to buy out the club (we know he’s up to no good when we see him in his house, one of those modernist steel-and-glass edifices that connote capitalism gone wild).

Everyone who’s part of the Burlesque Lounge family is just so goddamned nice in Burlesque. There’s club manager Sean, played by Stanley Tucci in a by-the-numbers reprise of his Devil Wears Prada part; we learn that this gay blade once had a fling with Tess, which opens a vein of autobiography in Antin’s screenplay (he and Cher are former lovers of David Geffen) that is quickly closed as they resume being friendly to each other after a spat. There’s good-hearted Jack (Cam Gigandet, who I swear has abs on his earlobes), who lets Ali bunk with him, platonically, for many boring scenes. Onscreen Alan Cumming, as Alexis the doorman and performer, is nice, though I hope the fur flew when his big number was cut and he realized he and Cher would have next-to-no screen time. Oh, and there’s even Nikki (Kristen Bell), the faded star of the show, who conspires to knock Ali off her perch as she ascends to the top of the bill in record time. Forget any Nomi-and-Cristal action a la Showgirls (1995), and needless to say any Nomi-on-Cristal action–Nikki, who we hear has a drinking problem but whose only visible flaw is tardiness, is by the end forgivable, likable, nice. Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1972)–they wouldn’t recognize these show people, and would eat their candy asses for breakfast.

So the drama’s a non-starter; how’s the music? Boom-boom-boom and largely unvaried though the staging is a bit more imaginative when Ali performs a Sally Rand-style fan dance. Cher’s big song, the Diane Warren-penned “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” won the Golden Globe but was passed up for an Oscar. I’d say it’s as good as the nominated mediocrities (a terribly unexciting year for that category) and for God’s sake it would have given the Academy Awards four minutes of Cher, oxygen that the telecast sorely needed. Burlesque‘s one shot at redeeming itself was squandered.

Audio/Video: I never really understood these DVD/Blu-ray combo packs until I got a Blu-ray player for Christmas. The Blu-ray is for your souped-up home theater setup, never to leave the house, while the DVD (also sold separately) is for car trips with the kids and visits to your Luddite Aunt Tillie, who only uses the DVD player you bought her when you visit with the kids. While it’s unlikely that the kids or Aunt Tillie will want to watch Burlesque, well, at least they have the option on a really rainy day. (A really rainy day when the government has forbidden outdoor access and the military has blocked off all transportation routes, when there is nothing else to do.)

I decided to compare the two on my upscaling Blu-ray player, which meant I watched segments of Burlesque twice for you, dear reader. (Throw some tips in my PayPal account.) I would say that the amplified clarity of the AVC-coded Blu-ray (2:35.1 aspect ratio) allows you to see every pore of Cher’s face, but there are none. It does, however, bring out the white-hot lighting of the musical scenes contributed by theatrical wizards Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, which are medium-cool on the DVD. While entirely serviceable, the DVD is like looking at the Blu-ray through a slight mist.

The 5.1 DTS-HD mix is a winner on the Blu-ray, cranking the songs and adding to the club ambiance while maintaining the dialogue at  a listenable level. Not that there’s much to cock an ear toward (“Is Ali short for anything?” “Alice.” “Alice, hmmm…Well, welcome to Wonderland.”)

Special Features: Here’s where the DVD has it all over the Blu-ray. No, not in quantity; the Blu-ray has a pop-up “movieQsync” factoid screen and five making-of featurettes, “BD Live” features that I can’t access given the lack of sufficient memory horsepower on my machine. I think I have to insert a flash memory card in the back of the player, which brings me to what I hate about Blu-ray–the units run like very gawky computers. I accidentally switched mine off three times trying to access the extras the Blu-ray and the DVD have in common, which meant having to blow past trailers for equally dubious movies and other gunk again and again.

To get to…not much: a friendly, banal commentary with Antin that’s at odds with stories of the two divas running for cover from his spats with his producer boyfriend over the studio’s most expensive project and “The Burlesque Jukebox,” which gives you six “full and uncut” (i.e. uninterrupted by plot cutaways) musical numbers, including Cumming’s “That’s Life,” salvaged from the cutting room floor. There’s also an alternate opening that smoothes the trajectory of Aguilera’s journey from Iowa to L.A. with less insistent editing and a blooper reel, though you are forgiven for mistaking the entire feature for one two-hour blooper reel.

Bottom Line: Boring-bad where it might at least have been fun-bad, this one’s as dead as burlesque.

About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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