After they have achieved a certain level of stardom, many pop stars decide to give movies a try, with varying degrees of success. Some, like Mandy Moore or Justin Timberlake, are able to act without relying on a musical crutch. Others, like Britney Spears or Madonna, quickly realize film is not their forte and move on.
In Burlesque, a singer who successfully crossed over into acting — the Oscar-winning Cher — teams up with movie newcomer Christina Aguilera. Cher gets top billing on the film’s posters (and, for the first time in her career, gets to sing onscreen), but she’s really playing a supporting character here: Tess, the owner of a Los Angeles burlesque club where female dancers perform and lip-sync to recorded music.
Written and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Steve Antin, Burlesque is really a showcase for Aguilera. Playing Ali from Iowa who moves to California and gets a job waitressing at Tess’ joint, Aguilera holds her own fairly well in her dialogue scenes. But after she’s promoted to performer, Aguilera gets to strut her stuff in musical numbers that take full advantage of her powerful voice and dancing skills (my favorite bit: the song she sings wearing a dress consisting entirely of pearl necklaces).
Reminiscent of Showgirls minus the sex, nudity, sleaze, bad acting and horrible dancing, Burlesque is a typical A Star is Born story. Ali gets an All About Eve-ish rival in Nikki (Kristen Bell), who doesn’t appreciate all the attention the new girl is getting. She finds a potential boyfriend in Jack (Cam Gigandet), a waiter at the club. She is wooed by a rich businessman (Eric Dane), the sort of guy who doesn’t brag about his fortunes. And she relies on the assistance of Sean (Stanley Tucci), the club’s costume designer, for career and personal advice.
No one would ever call Burlesque original, but the movie is remarkable for its utter lack of traditional villains. The characters are all hugely appealing, even the ones you might expect to be playing on Dr. Evil’s team. Gigandet, so often cast as bullies and bad guys (Twilight, Never Back Down), reveals a surprisingly sweetness as a romantic leading man (his scenes opposite Aguilera are among the film’s best). Bell makes Nikki’s jealousy understandable: She has nothing against Ali; she just likes having the spotlight.
Cher’s performance is limited by a distracting amount of Botox and cosmetic surgery — the only things that move on her face are her eyes and lips — so she never quite disappears into the role of the cabaret owner trying to stave off bank repossession, but she does make the best of her two songs, proving her voice remains as strong as ever.
Curiously, Burlesque never gives Cher and Aguilera the seemingly obvious duet (there were rumors on the set that the two didn’t always get along). But although you can’t really tell if Aguilera is quite ready to carry a dramatic role, she more than excels as the hugely talented singer and dancer who helps put the fading cabaret back on the map. Burlesque is exceedingly well shot and edited — some of the musical numbers are knockouts — and it emits an upbeat, pleasant vibe that carries you right past its plentiful clichés. Best, you don’t even have to know the title of one of Aguilera’s pop hits to appreciate her performance: In case there was ever any doubt, Burlesque proves the girl’s got talent.
Cast: Christina Aguilera, Cher, Cam Gigandet, Stanley Tucci, Peter Gallagher, Kristen Bell, Eric Dane.
Writer-director: Steve Antin.
Producer: Donald De Line.
A Screen Gems release. Running time: 114 minutes. Vulgar language, brief nudity. Playing at: area theaters