Programmatic by design, Burlesque flattens singer Christina Aguilera’s inherent thorny appeal — the persona that’s at once obnoxiously provocative and sympathetic — by laughably casting her as the 21st-century, torch-singing equivalent of Ruby Keeler in a hodgepodge of Busby Berkeley plots, with none of the Depression-era style or social critique.
Aguilera’s innocent Ali is a small-town orphan who Greyhounds it from Iowa to Hollywood and ends up at Burlesque, a nightclub run by Tess (Cher). Ali keeps her singing talent to herself while working her way up from waitress to dancer in the club’s stage show, consisting of highly gymnastic, quasi-comic lip-synch routines set to standards.
Running an unconscionably extended 116 minutes, Burlesque is nearly half over before Aguilera is allowed to be Aguilera. The superstar is instead shoehorned into a rehashed backstage musical conceit: Good girl is tempted by bad guy, ultimately resists, becomes a star, finds love, and saves the show.
Cabaret is clearly the guiding reference here: Director Steve Antin confines each musical number to the stage, weaving in offstage narrative. What worked as a dialectical tactic in that film, creating ironic tension between the on- and offstage worlds, feels here like a tacit admission from Antin that he doesn’t have enough faith in the audience’s ability to read story and character development into the song and dance. Not that he’s working with Kander and Ebb: The film’s catchiest tune — treated as a throwaway — is, bizarrely, based on a Marilyn Manson sample.