In the long line of star vehicles for singers, it's rare to find one that isn't a train wreck. Remember Glitter? I'm still trying to forget that one. And then there's work like Showgirls, which lacks the singer-turned-actress angle but is just so plain bad that it's driven some people to the brink of believing that it's actually a satiric masterpiece. So where does Burlesque, which had all of the potential to be campy and trashy beyond all belief, land? In a surprisingly decent place, actually.
The plot set-up is almost identical to Showgirls: small-town girl heads to a big city in hopes of being a dancer/performer. This time, the small-town girl is Christina Aguilera, who, even with her ups and downs over the years, is already light years more bearable than Elizabeth "DIFF'RENT PLACES!" Berkeley. Aguilera plays Ali, who moves from Iowa to LA, and struggles to find solid employment. When she chances upon the fading Burlesque Nightclub, she's entranced by the performers and sets out to work her way onto that stage. Along the way, she has to prove herself to the club's owner, Tess (Cher), who's struggling to keep the club out of the hands of sleazy mogul Marcus (Eric Dane). With help from Jack (Cam Gigandet) and a little conniving, Ali begins waitressing at the club, while constantly fighting for opportunities to show what she's made of.
As a story there is nothing, and I mean nothing, new here. Steve Antin's script seems to be simply checking off the boxes of various events and relationships, without ever putting too much into them. For the first chunk of the movie, it was hard not to feel just a little bit antsy; we know that the "star is born" moment is coming, and after a while you just want the film to arrive at that point. And as far as villains go, the film's two antagonists, Marcus and Nikki (Kristen Bell), barely register as threats. Bell especially is used more as a verbal punching bag for just about everyone. Yet the film avoids the plot pitfalls of Showgirls, so Burlesque is never sleazy. The club where Ali dreams of working isn't a strip club; it's a performance club. Yes, there's the occasional strip tease, but it's relatively innocent and never out of control (only one fan dance).
So how does Aguilera fare in her first real acting role? Not bad, though not especially good. She's got a nice presence, but at times she can feel either too blank or like she's trying too hard to show us that she's "ACTING." In an early scene where she looks for work while wandering the streets, you can practically feel her over thinking her looks of confusion. That the character doesn't offer her too much to work with doesn't help, though she gets a few good zingers in there. However, she can sing, and Burlesque offers a wonderfully balanced array of songs for her to fully demonstrate her mind-blowing vocal range. Already a performer, it makes Aguilera's musical numbers that much more believable, and even when certain performances are over-edited, they're still hugely enjoyable to watch. Costumes, art direction, some cinematography, and sound design are all aces, to the film's benefit.
Cher and Tucci, meanwhile, work their roles like old pros, and their chemistry is charming. Cher in particular, puts her all into it, namely in a down-and-out number titled "Last Of Me." As for the rest of the cast, they're all fine, save for Alan Cumming, whose glorified cameo conveys a delightful amount of mischief with so very little. And even as the plot moves through its required stages, is becomes less and less of a distraction as the number finally kick into high gear. At times you'll wish that they would just show an entire song uninterrupted, instead of cutting between conversations and song, but for the most part, it works (just barely). There's never any doubt as to where this story is going to go; not a bit. And the non-singing scenes lack the bite or all-around acting strength of musicals like Moulin Rouge! or Chicago. But Burlesque isn't concerned with making us sweat about stuff like plot or deep characterization. It gives us just enough to qualify as a movie (and not a string of music videos), and takes us along for an empty but surprisingly satisfying ride.