Ali (Christina Aguilera), a lonely innocent from Iowa newly arrived in Los Angeles, has lucky timing. The heroine of the musical Burlesque walks into a Sunset Boulevard nightclub where scantily clad women are gyrating onstage and Alan Cumming is manning the cash register. "Is this a strip club?" Ali asks. Cumming looks appalled. "I should wash your mouth out with Jägermeister," he says, fluttering his eyelashes. Then Tess (Cher), the club's owner and resident diva, struts out onto the stage, as imposing and stiff as a stilt walker, and belts out a number called "Welcome to the Burlesque." Musically, it's not quite Cabaret's "Willkommen," but for an orphaned aspiring showgirl in need of a mothermentor figure, it's a dream introduction.
By this film's standards, the main criteria for burlesque seems to be looking good in undies and knowing where your breasts are, so you can grab them every 30 seconds or so. Tess is the only performer who actually sings (Cher has two numbers). The rest, including the mean mini-diva Nikki (Kristen Bell), lip-sync to the classics. Ali doesn't get a role onstage, but she does manage to wrangle a waitressing job out of Tess which allows her to watch the show and learn all the numbers. This means that often, as she's moving about the club, she's simultaneously making spastic little flourishes with her hand, practicing dance moves, waiting for a chance to wow everyone. Ordering anything in a martini glass from this girl would be risky.
The movie is frivolous fun, but not, as I had sort of hoped, as sinfully awful as Showgirls, Mariah Carey's Glitter or Britney Spears' Crossroads. Lacking the snap of Chicago or the insane creativity of Moulin Rouge, it's a middle-of-the-road musical. While it took my eyes an hour to recover from the chronic soft focus required to make the naturally vampy Aguilera look like an angelic Breck girl, Burlesque doesn't have the kind of stunning bad taste that calls for the immediate invention of a drinking game built around it. Aguilera, making her dramatic debut, is far from a great actress, but compared to Elizabeth Berkley or Spears, she is a veritable Nicole Kidman.
And in Burlesque, she is propped up by three of the most fun people in show business: Cumming, Cher and Stanley Tucci, who plays the club's gay (of course) costume designer Sean. None of them are going home with an Oscar, but writer-director Steve Antin has written to their comic strengths and personas Cher's sarcasm, Cumming's naughtiness and Tucci's gift for being snarky and good-natured. The results, while occasionally forced, are consistently amusing. ("What happened to all the great dancers?" Tess grumbles to Sean during an audition. "They're all dancing with the stars," he says.)
What the movie does have in common with Glitter et al is the problem of trying to convince an audience that the adult heroine Aguilera is about to turn 30 famous to all of us, really could be an undiscovered novice, or for that matter, an innocent. Actually, Burlesque faces a bigger challenge. Aguilera might not be to your taste, or mine (the musical numbers are lively but produced no urge to sing in the shower), but in terms of sheer power, she's impressive a far bigger vocal talent than a Spears, for example. If Ali were real, she'd have already been discovered on American Idol.
Antin's solution is to run a bulldozer right over that obstacle and others (Bell can't dance? Shoot her from the waist up). During the opening credits, Ali, alone in a dive bar in Iowa, launches into Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me." Fully amplified and laughable in its professionalism, the number instantly establishes that we have no need to fret about Ali's future. It's lulling, the narrative equivalent of Muzak. The rest of the movie follows suit, unfolding predictably but pleasantly. At Burlesque, Ali meets her primary love interest right off the bat, Jack the bartender (Cam Gigandet, a young Brad Pitt type), and is soon sleeping on his couch in tantalizing proximity. Jack is engaged, but his fiancée is conveniently out of town.
In addition to finding fame and true love, there's also, surprisingly, a subplot involving the national real estate crisis. Tess and her ex-husband, Burlesque's co-owner Vince (the completely unnecessary Peter Gallagher), are facing foreclosure, which means we get to hear Cher grumbling about balloon payments. The local sleazy real estate mogul Marcus (Eric Dane) wants to buy Tess out, but she refuses. Ali's talent might bring in the punters and save the day, unless she's seduced by Marcus, who comes bearing glittering Louis Vuitton shoes and an opportunity to meet big-time producers. Should we be worried she'll let the club down? Not in this carefully cushioned star vehicle. "That one there," Sean says, gesturing at Ali, "she's beautiful on the inside as well."