A certain garishness goes with the territory, but the rest is all writer-director Steven Antin’s doing in “Burlesque,” an overwrought, underwritten hootchy-kootchy tuner that desperately wants to be “Cabaret,” but lacks the edge and historical context to pull it off. Unfolding with the wide-eyed innocence of a classic MGM musical, in which an orphaned country girl — played by vocally endowed, acting-challenged pop star Christina Aguilera — finds her place within the dysfunctional family of a racy Sunset Strip nightclub, “Burlesque” partially redeems its clumsy drama through infectious song and dance, enough to win over a midsize teen (and gay) following.
Aguilera plays Ali, an Iowa waitress of indeterminate age who can’t stand one more minute in her dusty small town, quits her job and then sticks around to sing an opening number (an Etta James cover) before catching the bus to Los Angeles. Her dreams aren’t big — just something better than she left behind — and she realizes them in the Burlesque Lounge, a retro-styled joint where scantily clad, stunningly beautiful showgirls outnumber the customers, performing a mix of old and new songs.
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“Burlesque” is to its namesake what gentlemen’s clubs are to genuine gentlemen — a stripped-down, tarted-up lingerie show divorced from the stage tradition’s satirical heritage, which makes for sexy, flash-of-skin dance numbers (ably edited by “Dreamgirls” cutter Virginia Katz) in lieu of wit or parody. The thin drama stumbles until Ali reaches the club — energized by Cher’s “Welcome to Burlesque” — a song that simultaneously introduces all the key characters and sells the nightclub’s appeal (the only example of expositional multitasking to be found on the soundtrack).
Clearly, the Burlesque Lounge is where Ali belongs, but it delivers virtually nothing in the way of conflict: The only obstacle is for Ali to win over tough-love Tess, the motherly co-owner of the club, who looks more like a Cher impersonator than the real Cher during her entrance — but soon reminds us of her gifts as both siren and star, socking over the movie’s lone ballad, the Diane Warren-written “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” in what could have been a throwaway scene.
The dancers are more or less interchangeable, with the exception of resident diva Nikki (Kristen Bell) and Georgia (“Dancing With the Stars” winner Julianne Hough), whose conveniently timed pregnancy provides an opening for Ali. Meanwhile, Antin deliberately blurs the sexuality of the male characters, including androgynous emcee Alexis (Alan Cumming, in “Cabaret” mode), gay stage manager Sean (Stanley Tucci, who survives unscathed) and eyeliner-wearing bartender Jack (“Twilight’s” Cam Gigandet).
“Burlesque” may be trading in archetypes, but that’s no excuse for the fact Ali is the least developed of these characters. Is she 20 or 30? A virgin or a skank? Antin gives us nothing to go on, apart from a detail about Ali’s mom dying shortly after the girl’s seventh birthday, and Aguilera, while undeniably entertaining when her character is onstage, cannot spin the slight backstory into anything resembling a full-blooded person. It’s a shortcoming, considering how much Tucci and Cher are able to do with their relatively minor roles.
As long as there’s music playing and girls sashaying, the movie delivers. But the instant it returns to earth, the seams start to show. What “Burlesque” needs is texture — not the red-velvet-and-rhinestones look that dominates the production design, but any sense that these are real people with real dreams facing real obstacles, rather than the overdue mortgage and moneybags investor (Eric Dane) Antin conjures up.
Antin, who has been prominently billed on posters and bus sides, is a former actor who made his screenwriting debut with 1992’s indie satire “Inside Monkey Zetterland.” While that movie aired the self-absorbed frustrations of those who drift into Los Angeles in search of stardom only to find rejection, “Burlesque” paints a rosier picture of showbiz, where talented hard workers eventually get their shot — none of the chewed-up and spat-out “Showgirls”-style vitriol here. Script shortcomings aside, Antin still manages to marshal an impressive production, and below-the-line contributions are consistently pro, except for greenscreen effects that look less convincing than Aguilera’s eyelashes.
The film economically divides its time between the Burlesque Lounge and Jack’s apartment, cutting to the club’s neon marquee so often between scenes that a drinking game seems in order. The lounge itself looks great, a model that could easily translate to a themed restaurant or Broadway show if the need should ever arise.