Where’s the Burlesque in “Burlesque”?

Disclaimer: I generally enjoy cheesy dance movies. And although I don’t spoil a lot of this highly complex plot, I do give information about the movie’s narrative. Let me also say that I also love me some Cher. So be forewarned.

Now we have some context for this review of “Burlesque,” the new movie with Cher and Christina Aguilera coming out tomorrow.

At face value, the film is entertaining. It’s appropriately glitzy and gaudy. It’s the kind of movie where you have to ready to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good time or to escape from reality. The story is simple and formulaic, a small-town girl (Aguilera) moves to the big city (in this case Los Angeles) to follow her dreams of super-stardom. She randomly runs into this burlesque lounge run by Cher (“Tess”) and viola, she finds her destiny. In short, she gets a job waitressing there with the hopes of being on stage one day. She gets a chance to audition when one of the dancers gets unintentionally pregnant and so the journey begins.

We find out the dancer is pregnant because she’s in the bathroom throwing up before a performance and Cher asks her what’s going on. There’s no real discussion of the dancer’s options regarding the unintended pregnancy except she says she’s scared to tell the father because she doesn’t know how he’s going to react. It was automatically assumed she was keeping it. In the next scene, Cher is auditioning new dancers. (Later in the film, the pregnant dancer gets a ring from her man and there’s even a wedding. Happily ever after.)

Then we meet the dancers: the heart and soul of the burlesque club. While the larger body of background dancers were kinda ethnically diverse, only one woman of color had a speaking part (of a combined maybe 4 sentences)…and her character’s name was Coco Puff. *blank stare* I could understand if the other dancers had similar stage names because many real-life burlesque performers have cheeky names that play on their physicality, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. But the other dancers were named “Nikki” and “Georgia.” *side eye*

One feminist tidbit I enjoyed was that Cher and Ali (Aguilera’s character which is short of Alice a la “Alice in Wonderland”) became solid friends and colleagues, there was little generational drama or jealousy. Cher is presented as a mother-figure to the girls and Aguilera works with her to make sure her club doesn’t get bought out from developers. Usually when there’s a woman boss in movies, she exists to make the younger protagonist’s life a living hell (a la “Devil Wears Prada”). The only tension from Nikki (Kristin Bell), the lead dancer with an alcohol and time management problem who Ali/Christina replaces.

In general what bothered me about this film is that it has nothing to do with burlesque. In the production notes, it says that the writer/director Steven Antin was inspired by old school burlesque tradition but I felt it missed a lot of the depth and flavor of burlesque as an art form. Yes, shiny costumes and spectacle factor heavily in burlesque which was aplenty in this movie. But there was no striptease, storytelling or satire which all are essential parts of burlesque. It could have been dynamic like “Chicago” but instead it was more like a watered down version of “Showgirls.” To me, much of the feminist power of burlesque is that women are commanding sexuality using their bodies and nudity to tell stories, poke fun at life, make political statements or challenge ideas of what’s “sexy.” Burlesque is often tittilating by design but there was nothing overwhelmingly arousing about the film. The choreography was a little tame (I’d like to call it PG-13 sexy) and was solely aimed at tantalizing the audience. One number had some burlesque flavor, a song called “Guy What Takes His Time” where Christina actually stripped and used feather fans and strategically placed instruments to maintain the PG-13 rating. The girl can sing but most the music was underwhelming. There were some dope Cirque du Soliel-esque acrobats that performed a couple of times with Alan Cumming (he has a small part as the club’s host) which gave more of a burlesque feeling.

The main enjoyment of the film comes from Stanley Tucci. His character, Sean the stage manager, is Cher’s ambiguously gay version of Stanford Blatch: always there to give candid advice and help her focus on her dreams. He was actually the sage overseer the club. He often reminds the other characters to take advantage of opportunities because they often are a limited time offer. Hey, there are a few solid gems here.

I’m not going to go into the details of the romance aspect of the story because it’s typical rom com filler with very little depth. The lead guy, the hot engaged bartender played by Cam Gigandet, serves his role as eye candy, along with a significant role by Eric Dane (affectionately known as Dr. Sloan/McSteamy on “Grey’s Anatomy”) as the rich real-estate develop trying to buy out Cher’s club. The plot acts weird about Sean’s sexuality and tries to make it this big reveal that he’s gay even though he and Cher had a tryst many moons ago. It highlighted how he was all about one-night stand and has a chance of heart..it just felt awkward.

But to sum it up, you will be entertained. It is pretty shameless in its cheese so you can’t be too mad at it and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. It’s the kind of film where you can marinate in your Turkey Day food coma or escape from maniacal Black Friday shoppers and fall down the rabbit hole.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted November 23, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I want to see it, too, but it figures that they would basically just turn it into another canned-female-sexuality-which-exists-only-for-a-male-gaze thing. Which sucks. Because it could have been awesome. Especially with gender-bending and drag. Lady Gaga is more burlesque than these poseurs.

  2. Posted November 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Because you are sure to get some inevitable “but burlesque is anti-feminist!!!!” comments, allow me to say that I agree one hundred percent in your depiction of burlesque as an activity that can really have a certain feminist politics. I’ve even performed as part of a feminist burlesque troupe. Burlesque has its share of sexist issues, as does any industry where feminine sexuality is at play, but there are surely many positive, feminist elements to burlesque that outweigh or at least balance the bad. And I want to see this movie!

    But I’m saddened by your statement that it doesn’t contain as much dancing as one would hope.

  3. Posted November 29, 2010 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t really familiar with the actual concepts of Burlesque, so I guess I had a laywoman’s perspective. In that sense, the only thing I had much of a problem with was when Ali made the “nobody would know you’re really a guy” stab at Nikki. I didn’t really see why it was necessary either.

  4. Posted November 29, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I think you were far too easy on this movie. It was the only movie I ever walked out on – it was painful to watch from a feminist standpoint, I thought.

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