Sunday, June 5, 2011

Burlesque (2010)

Back in December, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced the nominees for the annual Golden Globe Awards. Like all good awards-obsessed bloggers (I readily admit that I love the pageantry of the awards season, even if I don't take the merits of them particularly seriously), I eagerly published my reactions to those nominations. And like everyone else, I scrutinized and lamented the bizarre Best Picture - Musical/Comedy category, which featured a mix of films that had either no awards traction at all or were possible contenders derailed by awful reviews and/or box office. I, too, wondered why the HFPA chose these films over much better comedies and musicals such as Toy Story 3 (which, in retrospect, was probably done in be the creation of the category/ghetto that is Best Animated Feature), Easy A, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Though the quality of the films that were nominated are still less-than-stellar (The Kids Are All Right is still far and away the best, with only Red still unseen), watching this films for the first time has led me to believe that there might be a bigger story here. In the future I'll write more extensively about this, but the Best Picture - Musical/Comedy category of 2010 seems to be a grab-bag of various currents in Hollywood, from the rise of (soulless) 3D extravaganzas to the need to remake and recapture past glories, and everything in between.

How does Burlesque fit into this theory? Though not a perfect match, it can easily be compared to The Tourist in that it's a callback to a genre that has slowly been dying in the American mainstream: the original movie musical. There was a time when movie musicals didn't have to be based on a Broadway show; though originals have always been outnumbered by existing properties, it wouldn't be unusual to find one. The apex of the modern movie musical came in the late 1980s - early 1990s, when Disney cranked out one classic animated musical after another during the "Disney Renaissance." And there's the unfortunate truth: the majority of original movie musicals are animated, not live-action. Correct me if I'm wrong, but The Singing Detective, Across the Universe and High School Musical 3 are the only live-action original movie musicals of the last decade (and only one of those actually featured original songs). In other words, the fact that Burlesque was even made is a sign of a studio taking a tremendous risk, and perhaps the Best Picture Globe nomination came from that: it's the HFPA's stamp of approval for more?

So what of Burlesque, the movie? Is it the savior of the original movie musical? That depends completely on how willing you are to buy what it's selling. And it's asking you to buy an awful lot, as it asks you:

- Can you believe in a small-town girl (Christina Aguilera) from Iowa making it in Los Angeles?
- Can you believe in the power of burlesque, another dying entertainment genre, to change lives?
- Can you believe in true love conquering all through increasingly contrived situations?
- Most importantly, can you believe you can be floored that said small-town girl, Ali, has amazing pipes when she's played by Aguilera, who's famous for her enormous voice?

Ali comes to Los Angeles looking to become a star when she stumbles upon a burlesque, owned by Tess (Cher, a welcome presence). Jack (Cam Gigandet, who somewhat resembles Ryan Gosling if you really, really squint your eyes), a bartender at the club, let's Ali wait tables, which she does in hopes of convincing Tess and her assistant Sean (Stanley Tucci) to let her join the dancers onstage. Tess, however, has her own problems: her club is going under, her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) is trying to convince her to sell it to shady businessman Marcus (Eric Dane), and on top of all this, her diva star dancer Nikki (Kristen Bell) is, well, being a diva. Ali, of course, gets her shot, and wows everyone with her vocals. Will her live-singing save the club?

Burlesque is, if nothing else, campy to a degree that hasn't been seen in a long, long time. The script, written by actor-turned-writer/director Steve Antin, is peppered with incredibly cheesy dialogue, the sorts of things that people only say in movies. The whole film is incredibly predictable, and there's a lot of things that either don't make sense, seem completely ridiculous, or some combination of the two, and are meant to drive the plot forward. Antin's direction is pedestrian at best, failing to really make the musical numbers pop or add anything interesting to the film. And with the exception of Tucci, who's always a joy to see, everyone's performance is completely over-the-top, especially Bell's and Aguilera's, both of whom seem to be trying to out-act the other whenever they share the screen. By the time the film reaches it's third act, it enters the stratosphere of insanity, hitting one implausible event after another all leading up to a finale that makes you wonder how it all came together in such a preposterous, inconsequential way.

And yet, if you're willing to give in to the movie's wishes and shut your brain off for 100 minutes, it's hard to find a more enjoyable time at the movies. The music, both original and covers, is excellent, bold and brassy that stays true to burlesque's jazzy roots while also mixing in modern pop. Everyone seems to be really biting into their roles and giving it their all. And let's all be honest, would we want to see Cher do anything BUT over-the-top? It's great to see her on screen again, and she get's the movie's best, meatiest song in "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," a soaring ballad that's perfectly in tune with her husky voice. Hopefully that song is a promise for the actress, and she'll return to the screen soon.

Burlesque lives or dies by it's campiness. Deny it, and the film is a borderline disaster, the work of an amateur without any clear vision trying to put on a spectacle well beyond his talents and a cast that has varying degrees of talent. Embrace it, though, and the film pops in spite of itself, resulting in the same kind of ridiculous fun that one get's from watching a Syfy original movie: it's so bad it's good. This generation may have just found it's Rocky Horror Picture Show. B

1 comment:

ZexyxIsxSexy said...

Cher is the Frank-N-Furter of this film without her it would be shit.