By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
A slight tilt to Earth will be caused today by the crossed paths of supreme divas Cher and Christina Aguilera in Burlesque — the tremulous collision of Xtina and the face that launched a thousand drag shows.
Burlesque is what happens when an irresistible sex object like Aguilera meets Cher's immovable upper lip. It isn't always pretty but on occasion it's guiltily pleasurable.
Writer-director Steven Antin has created a kinder, gentler Showgirls, surrounding his stars with all the same flash yet only a smidgen of the trash. If you haven't seen Showgirls, maybe you'll recognize riffs borrowed from Chicago, Cabaret and Moulin Rouge. There's something for everyone in Burlesque, if everyone likes hoary stage door melodrama punctuated by bombastic musical numbers.
Personally, I do on occasion, and Burlesque is almost one of them. Antin nearly convinces me that he's going for the smirks and chuckles his movie inspires. If not, then he will never be allowed to make a movie ever again. Something about that is fascinating, the way Burlesque teeters between high camp and taking itself seriously. And the way it keeps you watching for the car wreck to make the decision for us that never occurs.
Aguilera has the typical role of Ali, a small-town girl who throws away her greasy spoon apron, heading for L.A. and expected stardom. We know Ali has talent since before she leaves the diner she drops coins in the jukebox and it plays only the accompaniment to the song she wants to sing. Even machines know she has chops.
After a montage of crossed-off want ads, Ali spies the Burlesque Lounge, a seedy-chic joint with Alan Cumming manning the door, purring like his emcee in Cabaret. Before you can say "Sally Bowles" the place is electrified by a Fosse-style dance number culminating in Cher in sexy garb — but not moving much — belting out the first of her two numbers.
Cher plays Tess, the club's co-owner with her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher), who is negotiating against her wishes to sell the place. A mega-rich developer (Eric Dane, boo, hiss) has an offer on the table and a month before foreclosure, anyway. How can the club be saved? Well, replacing the dancers' lip-synching to old classics with Ali singing would be a start.
Which brings up something that nagged me throughout Burlesque. The dancers lip-synch but there's a band on stage so they must be, what, band-synching? Yet when Ali jumps in with her golden throat precisely when the curtain is literally coming down on the club's future, the band knows exactly what she's singing and how to play along. They are at least as smart as a jukebox. (Pondering how Aguilera must be lip-synching her "live" performances to jive with Antin's editing frenzy makes your head hurt.)
Whether it's live or Memorex, Aguilera can certainly wail. Plus, she has a rapport with the camera that feels unforced, like someone who could carry a movie even outside her musical comfort zone. Cher already has those qualities down pat. Together they make Burlesque a monument to fabulousness, and a future staple on RiffTrax.com, where cheese is always served.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.