Movie critics are annoying, aren’t we? All you want to know is whether a film is worth your $9, and we spend 600 words dropping allusions to the cinematic canon and generally trying to show how clever we are.
But when we see a movie, critics are having gut reactions, just like you. Laughing. Eye rolling. Vomiting. And usually we have the sense to know whether our gut reactions coincide with those of the film’s target audience or radically diverge from them. If this is a film we personally wouldn’t pay to see, chances are we won’t react like the average person who would.
But Burlesque is a confusing case, because cowriter-director Steve Antin (brother of Robin Antin of Pussycat Dolls fame) seems to be aiming at two distinct demographics. One consists of every 12- to 18-year-old who can’t get enough of Bring It On, “Glee” and “Dancing With the Stars.” The other is the cult following of Showgirls and early John Waters — which includes many a graying critic.
Does the film satisfy either audience? First, a synopsis sans spoilers. Christina Aguilera plays a towheaded orphan from the Iowa cornfields who’s chomping at the bit to fulfill dreams of show-biz stardom. She brings her relentless pep to L.A., where she finds Cher presiding over a plush neo-burlesque club whose dancers are too busy popping, locking, bumping and grinding to do anything but lip-synch.
Like Debbie Reynolds ushering in the sound era in Singin’ in the Rain, Aguilera changes that with the power of her prodigious voice. (See what I did with the allusion?) She also gets caught between two boys with square jaws and ripped abs — one with eyeliner (Cam Gigandet) and one with a platinum card (Eric Dane). You can write the rest from here.
Does Burlesque hit its targets? If you come for plenty of glam, glittery numbers, and Cher and Christina belting to the back row, you won’t be disappointed. But if you come hoping to see Aguilera catfight with Kristen Bell (as a snippy headliner) the way Elizabeth Berkley sparred with Gina Gershon in Showgirls, you’ll feel cheated. Except for a few decent lines (most of them uttered by wardrobe master Stanley Tucci), the bitch-alicious dialogue is missing. Burlesque is corny, for sure, but it’s too calculated and self-aware to be sincerely silly, and it’s too commercial to hit high camp notes on purpose. It’s shiny and good-natured about its own fakeness, like a Disney Channel production.
And now, my gut reaction: How the hell did “burlesque” and “Disney Channel” end up in the same paragraph? This movie features three original songs with the word “burlesque” in the title, and that’s two or three too many. In what sort of world does the seamy, underground entertainment of Cabaret become an all-ages theme-park attraction? Like Moulin Rouge! turning Belle Epoque decadence into Hollywood musical fluff (but less creatively), Burlesque makes burlesque almost wholesome.
Just as every little girl in the ’80s yearned to be a Solid Gold dancer or the heroine of Flashdance, and every little girl in the ’90s wanted to be a Fly Girl or Jennifer Grey, so every little girl who manages to see Burlesque (probably on the sly, since it’s still PG-13 and rife with sexy lingerie) will want to vamp like Aguilera.
More power to them. But, fellow adult lovers of lurid costuming and general operatic insanity, this is not a movie for your $9. It is way too level headed. Wait a few weeks and see Black Swan.