Where Toulouse Lautrec meets New Orleans, the Burlesque in Los Angeles—not unlike Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics—is a blast from a nonexistent past. Catching a reflection of this hole in the wall from the windows of an upcoming high rise, small-town Iowa farm girl Ali (Aguilera) waltzes in and, after flexing her brass and ingenuity, her star is born. Burlesque the film, then, is not unlike Glitter: To quote our own Eric Henderson, it’s “a Make Me Pretty Barbie version of a camp classic.” But unlike Glitter, it’s far from camp. Neither smart nor oblivious, it’s just another one of Aguilera’s totems to her narcissism, and the proof is in Nikki’s (Kristen Bell) enraged response to her competitor’s rapid rise up the food chain: “I will not be upstaged by some girl with mutant lungs.”
It would seem that Aguilera’s regard for retrograde musical forms spills over into her taste in films. Burlesque is a star platform built from obsolete parts that predate Cher’s first facelift, recalling the cacamamiest of Brady Bunch episodes—or some Depression-set save-the-farm drama from Hollywood’s golden age. While Ali hungers Nomi Malone-like for the spotlight of the Burlesque stage, Cher’s Tess—torn between her take-the-money-and-run business partner (Peter Gallagher) and stick-it-out-to-the-end best gay (Stanley Tucci)—must figure out how to pay her mortgage. Enter the bionic cash cow that’s Aguilera’s melisma, heroically unleashed from the girl’s mutant lungs after Nikki deviously pulls the plug on the song Ali must lip-sync on stage. Like many have wondered since the former Mousketeer broke onto the scene in 1999 with the great “Genie in the Bottle”: How…does…she…do…it? “It just happens,” she says, almost modestly.
Yeah, girlfriend can out-sing just about anyone in the biz, even Mariah Carey these days, but that’s about all that Burlesque is interested in showcasing—that and Cam Gigandet’s ripped torso, which I’m almost sure gave my next-door seatmate Rex Reed a minor heartache. As she did on Back to Basics and Bionic, Aguilera straddles lines—between old and new, new and future, bombshell and burlesque—with a seemingly deliberate lack of irony. She rejects that sense of knowingness that has suited others before her, like her idol Madonna (as on the brilliant I’m Breathless), but Aguilera’s arrogance is such that she feels she doesn’t need to be smart because she, unlike Madonna, can actually sing. But that isn’t enough. When the best you can say about Burlesque is that it isn’t as bad as you expected, you know it has failed.