By coincidence, just last night Funny Girl was on TV. There's a scene in that movie where Fannie Brice (Barbra Streisand) is in a big dance number with the Ziegfield Follies. She performs as a singing bride, but she doesn't like the song, so to protest, she appears as a very pregnant singing bride. That risque joke must have prompted an interesting conversation with the censors back in 1968.
Burlesque has two things in common with Funny Girl. Maybe three. One is that it is approximately as risque as Funny Girl, which is to say, surprisingly tame for 2010. The second is that it is very clearly a star vehicle for a legitimate singer, in this case Christina Aguilera. The fashion in movie musicals, of late, is to feature movie stars who are neither singers nor dancers. There is no shortage of perfectly good singers and dancers out there, many of them probably unemployed, so there isn't much reason for an audience to have to put up with iffy singing and awkward dancing in a musical. Third, Burlesque is another iteration of the apparently timeless tale of a gal who rises from obscurity with pluck and tenacity and a nice set of pipes, and becomes a star.
The gal in this case is Ali (Aguilera), a small-town Iowa waitress who buys a one-way ticket to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a singer. After not very much struggle (apparently her dues were pre-paid back in Iowa), she talks her way into a job as a waitress at the Burlesque Lounge, a financially strapped nightclub where scantily-clad dancers bump and grind and lip-synch to songs from other, older musicals. Ali happens to walk in just as Tess (Cher), the proprietess, sings "Welcome to Burlesque." Perfect timing. Tess is about to lose her club to the bank if she can't pay the mortgage. Her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) tries to talk her into selling the place to Marcus (Eric Dane), a wealthy real estate developer. Tess won't sell, and spends most of the movie wringing her hands and being alternately defiant and in despair (sometimes in song!). Her best friend and stage manager Sean (Stanley Tucci) commiserates, and they exchange wisecracks and hugs just like girlfriends (because Sean is gay, and effectively one of the gals). Any star-is-born story needs both backstage drama and lots of song and dance, and Burlesque has them both. There's also a little side romance between Ali and Jack (Cam Gigandet), the club bartender and a would-be songwriter, and Ali and Marcus. But really, nothing lights up Ali's life like being on stage.
The plot is economical and fuel-efficient, which is to say that if some seemingly random bit of information should come up in conversation, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will prove pivotal later in the movie. Thus, the plot of Burlesque is pretty predictable. Ali will be a star. The Burlesque Lounge will be saved. Love will find a way. Real estate deals will be signed. But originality and surprise are not the point of Burlesque. Writer-director Steve Antin has crafted an old-fashioned take on an old-fashioned musical, with just enough plot to fill the gaps between musical numbers. This would be a bad thing if Aguilera were not a very good singer, but she is. She's an adequate actress and dancer, which is all the movie requires her to be. Cher has two musical numbers in the movie, which is noteworthy because Cher, despite a lengthy singing career, has never been in a musical before. She's exactly the kind of dramatic, power-ballad singer who can be nicely framed by a musical, even one as slight as this. She's also a better actress than you'd know from the clunky plotting and dialogue of Burlesque, and the scenes she shares with Tucci are the most interesting in the movie.
The musical numbers are relatively tame by burlesque standards -- there's a fan dance, sure, and implied nudity, but Burlesque could have been filmed in a fig forest for all the naughty bits it reveals. (The musical numbers run the gamut from intimate to spectacular to physics-defying supersized, but none are set in a fig forest.) The movie's most salacious dance number features a woefully underutilized Alan Cumming (how can you make a musical with Alan Cumming and not put him in every single number?) and a dancer eating a banana. Anyone going to Burlesque hoping for another Showgirls will be sorely disappointed. Not that the world needs another Showgirls -- one was more than sufficient. If you miss Busby Berkeley musicals, on the other hand, Burlesque might be right up your alley. The anachronistic tameness and lingerie-clad sexlessness is sort of charming in a goofy, sparkly, innocuous way.