"The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of matter and of the stars, but that within that prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness." Andre Malraux


11 December, 2010

Burlesque

What to say about Burlesque, the almost-musical starring Christina Aguilera & Cher's Immobile Face that hasn't already been covered in the past few weeks? I've heard it called campy, so-bad-it's-good, the new Showgirls, etc....but I've also heard that it's not that bad, it's entertaining, & "it's not great, it's not awful." Well last night I & a certain someone decided to go see for ourselves, & I'm glad we did. Somehow it manages to be both laughably awful & a pretty good flick at the same time.

For starters, the pace is brisk. (There are few things more maddening in a bad movie than a glacial pace to make you sit & contemplate exactly how tragic it is.) By the end of the opening credits, Christina has decided she's had enough of her well-lit bar/restaurant in "Iowa" (she mentions this later, but you have to take in on faith, since it looks a lot more like Texas or Oklahoma) & has arrived in L.A. by bus, presumably never speaking to the parrot at the window seat during her 2-day journey. Before you can say "Craigslist" she's exhausted all the singer/dancer auditions in her large-print newspaper's Classifieds section & finds herself entranced by a glowing neon word in the flattering dusk light, "BURLESQUE."

Yes, somehow this naive girl from the faraway land of I-oh-way has never heard of the lost-&-re-found art of burlesque, yet she is somehow street savvy enough to bully her way into employment under the neon sign in no time at all. She descends the stairs & finds herself no longer in the City of Angels but in a Berlin Cabaret by way of Chicago. If you miss the subtlety of the stylistic references to those shows/movies, well here's Alan Cumming at the box office to hammer it home. Christina pays her $20 admission just in time to catch Cher's Immobile Face onstage singing a catchy little ditty welcoming naive girls from the Heartland to their first visit to a burlesque theater. We also meet our leading man, Squinty O'Zellweger, & so begins one of the weirdest & longest flirtations in movie-dom. She asks him who she has flirt with to get a job there, & his heart is lost forever, & he becomes her life coach, boss, therapist, agent &, soon enough, landlord before she can do her first hair flip.

Cher's Immobile Face, alas, is less accommodating, but do I detect a hint of maternal instinct & self-identification behind that veneer? Maybe her brow moved just a little bit to suggest it, but I couldn't say for sure. Anyway, long story short, Christina of course ends up working as a bar wench because of the love spell she's woven over Squinty, & we're treated to a couple entertaining numbers onstage. About every 5 seconds, we also get a shot of Christina looking longingly up at the stage in the soft light of the bar. Does she want to be one of those girls onstage? If only we had some clue. She never looks particularly longingly toward Squinty O'Zellweger & his bulging biceps, so it's sort of unexpected when she shows up at his door when her fleabag motel room is burgled. Presumably they had a conversation at some point in which he gave her his address & said "stop by anytime," or maybe she just stuck a pin in the voodoo effigy she kept in her purse, but either way, it must have happened off camera.

No matter, this is The Movies, so of course he re-arranges his entire life to accommodate her, even after she admits she thought he was gay, & he reveals he has a fiance, you know, Somewhere Else. I mean, she's willing to stand in the rain, he's got 2% body fat & can walk AND talk at the same time, so it's clearly meant to be. She continues to weave her spell of seduction over the course of the movie by dating someone else, taking advantage of his financial situation to make him sleep on the couch while she takes the bed, & by generally showing no interest in him whatsoever (even when he's standing in front of her wearing nothing but a box of cookies). He's clearly smitten as a kitten.

Needless to say, Cher's Immobile Face is similarly won over, with a little help from Stanley "I'm incapable of giving a less than amazing performance" Tucci, & his Gay Old Queen wisdom from the sidelines, so Christina is onstage stealing the spotlight in no time at all. There's another dancer who is somehow immune to Christina's charms, & she expresses this by glaring at her from the soft, flattering backstage light. She hatches a plan to humiliate the new star, & -- wouldn't you know it -- ends up catapulting Christina to a whole new level of stardom. If only I had a dollar for every time I'd heard that old story.

There's also something about the club running out of money & a rich, handsome charmer evil developer chomping at the bit to buy it. Could it be for his own nefarious purposes, despite his assurances that he's on the up & up? Cher's Immobile Face vaguely registers concern -- perhaps -- so the situation must be dire. Could the crowds being drawn in by Christina's showstoppers raise enough to ward off this looming threat? Turns out...no. I won't ruin the actually quite clever denouement, but let's just say deux ex machina is alive & well in Berlin Chicago L.A.'s burlesque scene.

The list of Things That Don't Make Sense in Burlesque is a lengthy one that I won't delve into, but here's a representative tidbit: Tess, the character played by Cher's Immobile Face, is leaving the bar. It's late, she's tired (presumably), but wait! That guy who runs the lights is still at the club wondering about the rehearsal she'd requested. Tess shrugs & agrees to take a few minutes to rehearse. He asks if she wants a spotlight, & she says -- I'm certain of this -- "yes." So why is the only lighting as she belts out her song a soft blue light coming from behind? Careless editing, you would think dismissively, but then why cut back to him for reaction shots half a dozen times -- always standing there shining his non-existent spotlight? The longer it goes on, the more laughably ridiculous it becomes, until you're not even listening to the song, just watching the bizarre lighting mishap.

And yet...somehow, despite these guffaws & gaffes, I found myself genuinely enjoying the movie. It exists in its own little world with its own rules, but on the most basic level, it succeeds on its own terms; it entertains. I cared about what happened to the characters & enjoyed their antics. Don't hold your chapter's next Mensa meeting at a screening of this film, but have a couple drinks & go have fun. My dos centavos.

3 comments:

  1. Great (hilarious) review. I thought the movie was a miracle of diffused lighting. Writer/director Steve Antin (who dated David Geffen shortly after Cher did) knows how to photograph people to their best effect--while Cher was always backlit, Christina was always in a sunny glow even when walking the streets at night. I thought the dance numbers were really spectacular and well-shot.

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  2. Definitely going to watch it now! :)

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  3. I love that you highlighted my fav part of the film. When Cher completely stops the film dead in it's tracks for that ballad (methinks Cher had a clause in her contract). It was so unrelated to the plot and obviously forced into the film, hilarious stuff.

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