It could have been the 21st-century Showgirls. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. Instead, Burlesque, starring Cher and Christina Aguilera playing drag queen versions of themselves with all the vitality of Madame Tussauds wax dolls, is a bust that lacks the pizzaz and bugfuck nuttiness of Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 trash epic. Rated a family-friendly PG-13, Burlesque never loses its shit, never gets erotically out of hand, never devolves into delicious camp. Written and directed with schoolmarmish timidity by newcomer Steve Antin, Burlesque never even goes terribly, irretrievably wrong. It’s just dishwater dull.
We lick our lips in anticipation when Aquilera, fresh from Iowa, gets off the bus in L.A. and leans on club owner Tess (Cher) to make her a star. Alan Cumming, the Tony-winning emcee from Cabaret, says “wilkommen” and the burlesque girls dance in frenetically edited snippets like something out of Chicago. Antin has swallowed those two Broadway-to-Hollywood avatars whole. But what he chokes up is a cinematic hairball. Any movie that reduces Cher to two numbers (while Aquilera belts out what seems like two dozen power ballads) is in trouble. When Aquilera first sings (Etta James’ “Tough Lover”) Antin won’t let us make up our own minds about her talent. He has the whole cast, including Stanley Tucci as the gay stage manager and Cam Gigandet as the straight bartender, react with a jaw-dropping awe I haven’t see since Spielberg landed the mothership in Close Encounters. I laughed out loud intentionally only once, when Kristen Bell as Aquilera’s jealous rival asked Cher what she saw in “that slut with the mutant lungs.” That line belongs in a better, ballsier movie.