Aguilera, in debut role, is no match for Cher
‘Burlesque’’ lasts about 100 minutes. It doesn’t feel a hair over 95. It’s entertaining enough, like watching a celebrity workout film with a plot. But never once is it believable. Really, the movie should last 30 seconds. Christina Aguilera comes to Los Angeles from Iowa looking to perform and winds up in a female revue run by Cher. When her character, Ali, gets her big moment, she belts out a number that almost makes Cher cry. Ali could have saved herself the trouble and sung in front of the power-lunchers at the Ivy and been turned instantly into Christina Aguilera.
“Burlesque’’ is the sort of movie that asks us to pretend that we don’t know that this girl can sing. Or, rather, it asks us to wait for logical opportunity to stop pretending.
How an instrument like hers has been lying undiscovered on a farm in Iowa for 20-odd years defies the laws of the entertainment. Aguilera doesn’t have a set of pipes. She has a 4,100-horsepower engine. When she sings in this movie, the club’s audiences make the same face people did when Mark Wahlberg unzipped his pants in “Boogie Nights.’’
Ali’s big moment arrives when the revue’s resident shrew (Kristen Bell) tries to humiliate Ali by shutting off the music she and the other dancers have been using to lip sync in front of a packed house. The shrew thinks she has Ali right where she wants her. But Ali does a bit of pretending herself — as if she doesn’t know what to do — then proceeds to knock everybody’s socks off. The wait was worth it. But for her movie debut, why stick Aguilera in a performance musical? We already know what that voice can do. Why not have her play Xtina, a superhero who fights crime with her octave range? At least then she and Cher would be evenly matched.
Aguilera has a natural screen presence, more so than other singers — Tim McGraw, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna — who’ve devoted a lot of time to acting. But you watch Aguilera flit about in this nothing part and wonder if she really aches to impress you the way a Beyoncé does. Beyoncé isn’t a natural actor. She is, however, an insatiable one. Aguilera conducts herself here like a woman who knows from where her next meal is coming (expensive record producers).
And so, alongside a star like Cher, Aguilera no longer exists. As it turns out, that face of Cher’s remains a peerless instrument. It’s tight and shiny and angled (she’s 64 now), but it’s not a mask. It belongs to a wise woman with a performer’s heavy soul. A movie called “Burlesque’’ is probably not the place to bare it. Still, if you cut Cher, she’d bleed showbiz. Her opening minutes promise the world — or least the world of cosmetics. She rises from piles of dancers like a lipstick. Then she turns into a den mother, offering makeup advice and bantering with Stanley Tucci, playing another legend’s quipping gay sidekick.
She smashes a car window, refuses to sell her club to the real-estate sleazebag (the sheet rocky Eric Dane) who’s putting the moves on Ali, and performs a song — “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me’’ — alone on the stage. Is this really a song Cher needs to sing? Greta Garbo, perhaps. Or a particularly cheeky Whac-a-Mole. But not a woman with this much Vegas under her belt. Are we to believe that, even in this economy, Cher — or a woman Cher is playing — would be running a club strapped for cash and that that place would be like the Pussy Cat Dolls doing a dinner-theater production of “Cabaret?’’
At some point you wonder whether Ali and her boss will share a song. They do not, and my guess is we were spared. But that raises the question of why “Burlesque’’ exists at all. To unite two generations of gay men, I suppose, to remind fans of both women that they still have it, to give the costume designer of Hollywood something splashy to do. Of course, all the beads and feathers on display raise humanitarian concerns, like how many Muppets were killed to make this movie?