Written and Directed by Steven Antin
Starring Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell

With Burlesque, writer/director Steven Antin—who has had a long and checkered career in the industry, having every job from stunt man to bit player to music video helmer—attempts to achieve the quixotic goal of interesting a new generation in a form of entertainment that was dying out when their grandparents were teenagers.  It’s very clear that Antin has a passion for the grungy glamour associated with burlesque and Depression-era nightclubs and music halls, to say nothing of the silly showbiz musicals that Hollywood churned out by the dozen during its Golden Age.  He happily cribs from other sources both classic and more contemporary—a little bit of  42nd Street here, a little bit of Moulin Rouge there and a whole lot of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret throughout.

In fact, the story itself has basically been lifted from the plot of any vintage Busby Berkeley film: a small town girl (Christina Aguilera) arrives in the big city (Los Angeles) and through a combination of pluck and good old-fashioned luck scores a job at a glamorous nightclub where beautiful girls work their magic on stage under the eye of a wise den mother (Cher).  First consigned to waitressing, the new girl gets her shot at the big time when another dancer falls out of the company and she steps onstage.  As soon as she opens her mouth to sing, a new star is born.  Oh yeah, and there’s also a love triangle that forces her to decide between the starving artist that loves her (Cam Gigandet) and the wealthy playboy the loves to buy her things (Eric Dane).

Burlesque gets by for a little while on its  spirit and general eagerness to entertain—obviously, the sight of attractive women dancing around in their underwear is enough to hold the attention of most viewers.  But it quickly becomes clear that Antin has miscalculated in some major ways.  To begin with, he’s built his film around two stars that most younger moviegoers couldn’t care less about.  That’s not to disparage either woman’s talents as a performer (of music, at least)—obviously Cher is a genuine icon with a number of singing and acting awards on her shelf and Aguilera has been the voice behind several addictive pop hits.  But for the new generation of teens that Burlesque is trying to appeal to, both of them are old news, replaced by the Taylor Swifts’ and Miley Cyrus’ of the current pop-culture landscape.  That pushes the film’s appeal into an older age bracket and those viewers are understandably skeptical about what kind of movie Burlesque is trying to be.  (It’s worth pointing out that the stars don’t completely embarrass themselves by the way; while Cher seems hesitant at first, she loosens up as the movie progresses, particularly whenever she gets to play off Stanley Tucci, who hams it up to great effect as the club’s gay stage manager.  As for Aguilera, she’s an extremely limited actress, but compensates for that by blowing the roof off the joint in the musical sequences.)

Which brings us to Antin’s bigger mistake—his inability to decide whether to embrace the movie’s inherent camp value or run from it.  At times, Burlesque seems perfectly aware of its own silliness, most notably in a hysterical parking-lot encounter between Cher and the club’s resident diva (played with a mischievous twinkle in her eye by Kristen Bell) where both slap each other upside the head with melodramatic insults.  But then Antin turns around and treats other elements—particularly the risible love story—with stone-faced seriousness.  That approach cuts against the very spirit of the art form he’s supposedly celebrating.  Burlesque shows were always laced with humor–the teasing and joking was part of the titillation.  Most likely Antin was afraid of turning his pet project into Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven’s off-the-deep-end spoof of the Las Vegas showgirl set.  And sure, Showgirls is a deeply weird and cynical movie, but that weirdness also gives it an energy that Burlesque lacks.  Antin is eager to recreate the trashy spectacle of burlesque for modern audiences, but he also wants us to respect it as well.  Thanks to his clumsy handling of the material though, whatever respect we might have had soon turns to ridicule.

Burlesque opens in theaters nationwide today.