Monday, January 17, 2011

In commemoration of Burlesque's Golden Globe...

You’ve seen Burlesque already. Maybe you haven’t walked down the street and saddled up to the ticket booth, announcing your guilty intent to the judgmental ticket salesperson. But you’ve seen it. Burlesque comes from a long lineage of movie/musicals like Chicago, Moulin Rouge, Chorus Line, Fame and, yes, Showgirls. Some were successful, others… not so much. Yet on what basis? Every sour review of Burlesque (and there were many) ridiculed its unoriginal storyline, its paint-by-numbers screenplay, its recycling of familiar forms. Manohla Dargis hilariously called the film “a savvy combination of a Disney tween program and a Lifetime weepie.” But on what canon is one really supposed to judge a film like Burlesque, anyway?

Once upon a time, dear critics, there was a long stretch of Hollywood studio system that churned out more-or-less the same genre films every year. The same character actors filled the scenes and once stars got stuck on a thematic track, they were probably there for the run of their contract. This filled viewers with a sense of expectation, nostalgia and security. In a year that, to these critical eyes, has not yielded much by way of originality, I ask you, dear critics, “why you gotta hate on a perfectly adequate movie like Burlesque?” It functions on its own kind of economy, much like 2008’s Mamma Mia!. That movie was ravaged by critics but went on to become the most fruitful film in England, EVER. Burlesque also divides critical and audience camps. Receiving 34% from accrued reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, that same film garnered an A- approval from viewers on CinemaScore the week of its release. What’s really at issue here is the fulfillment of pleasure, so let’s get down to brass tacks.

Burlesque sports a narrative so banal that it’s beside the point to even go into it here. Blond girl in Iowa… aspirations… Los Angeles… Cher. And it moves along quite like that, aware, and in everyone’s best interest. We know the story and it’s not what we’re here for. It’s the motions! The film replays the opening to crowd-pleaser, Chicago, finding a blond shyly gazing into the limelight. The scene also proves that it is, in fact, more pleasurable to see Cher on stage than that Catherine Zeta Jones. Cher will later sing the (GOLDEN GLOBE WINNING) Diane Warren song “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” á la Jennifer Hudson’s “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” Veronica Mars actress Kristin Bell lipsyncs like Moulin Rouge’s rehash of the showgirl showstopper “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” It's all familiar. You get the idea.

This is the much-publicized first acting effort from Christina Aguilera, who does just fine in her few dramatic moments. She’s game as hell and a cipher to the T, all baby-faced and blond. Cher and Bell are entrusted with most of the histrionics, graciously leaving Christina to belt out five remaining musical numbers from her (to quote the film) “mutant lungs.”

Many critics blasted what they felt was the film’s patchwork format, how these scenes, bolstered between so many aural eruptions, felt like mere vignettes. They’re neglecting a musical mode currently more relevant than the traditional musical. The night before I attended my screening of Burlesque, I, by fortunate happenstance, watched Kylie Minogue’s Showgirl: The Homecoming Tour dvd. Now, in arena spectaculars such as Kylie’s, favored hits are strung together with sensational sets and a light-handed nod at narrative sequencing. Each thematic episode lays siege on the most conventional storylines and recognizable touchstones of contemporary culture. These mammoth events, now the norm for pop divas the world over, are well-oiled machines, purely professional arrangements to inspire fits of ecstasy throughout a sea of international attendees.

Burlesque, which is directed by the man who brought the Pussycat Dolls to our small screen for the reality show Search for the Next Doll, seems more akin these such Vegas-style vehicles than more traditional narrative efforts like Cabaret, Sweet Charity, or Moulin Rouge, even. So driven to please in the most perfunctory fashion, Burlesque is something of a fascinating symbiosis between these forms. Its drama is mild, never reaching beyond what’s required to bring us to the next showstopper. So being, it never achieves the kind of narrative prowess that makes fabulous messes in films like Striptease and Showgirls. But that’s because the film is too pop, or amenable to cause that brand of surprise. Its story doesn’t thrill, but brings a satiated grin of delight to the lips.

This expansive approach towards the musical is not that far from Mamma Mia!, the play-then-film that was begotten from a handful of ABBA songs. The production leaned on its recognizable score and famous, non-singer cast, haphazardly assembling dizzying production numbers with a shimmering gaudiness that befits Greece in June. Mamma Mia! made all of that British money from hen parties; ladies who love the songs of ABBA assembled to sing along to their favorite tunes; karaoke mammas who find Pierce Brosnan’s lack of singing talent a humanizing trait, as though he were taking part in their shenanigans.

I saw Burlesque in New York’s Chelsea, which turned out to be something akin to seeing Mamma Mia! in London’s West End, surrounded by screaming and swooning gay men in lieu of crooning hens. It’s immersive. Like Mamma Mia!, Burlesque is an event film. Released on Thanksgiving, it’s tailor-made for the kind of escapist diversions that characterize holiday entertainment. It’s flashy, fulfilling and utterly predictable.

I’m the target audience this time around, it seems. Though, I’m not sure if that’s intentional. I’m sure the studio would prefer the film as a post-turkey family destination. And yet it sports a similar sensibility to other recent mainstream offerings aimed at women and helmed by openly gay men. Just like this year’s Sex and the City 2, Burlesque doesn’t feel so much like a film for or about women as it does a kind of ecstatic gay role play; or, what Lindy West hilariously calls it, in her Stranger assault on the former film, “essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls.”

Burlesque parades an aesthetic that’s at once hyperbolically glitzy, like a Cher Farewell Tour, but also somehow low-budget, like West’s “home video” or Dargis’ “Lifetime weepie.” The scenes are sweet and go down easy due to their complete conventionality and the men sparkle like confections. Fortunately, Antin has set to work a crew of very competent actors in his gingerbread parlour (joining Cher, Aguilera, and Bell are Stanley Tucci, reprising his Prada role, Peter Gallagher, Eric Dane and Alan Cumming, doing his best Justin Bond imitation) and its nice to see them carry on in the well-worn grooves of the showgirl tradition.

‘Cause, let’s face it, since the apex of this universe is a danceteria on the Hollywood strip, the ambitions of the film are nothing short of modest. Burlesque doesn’t invent a wholly different genre of musical. It evinces the evolution of the genre in the wake of chart-topping Beyoncé concert DVDs and retread musicals like Moulin Rouge, Mamma Mia! and Hairspray. It pastiches elements from every point in showgirl history, finessing a new blend of same-old, and achieving its goals in the most satisfying manner. It’s in this capacity that Antin’s film resembles more modest musicals from the old studio system, where ticket-buyers would pay to see their favorite stars in parts reminiscent of prior pictures (Cher) or popular singers making their film debut (Xtina). It also plays out like VH1 storytellers. Set on a sparkling, but humble stage, Cher and co. deliver the goods this holiday season by reflecting on past triumphs and redecorating them with a polite flourish of glitz and glamour. You may not be able to turn back time, but sometimes it’s awfully sweet to retread it.


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