Apparently it's time for the second round of Depression Musicals. A competent, buoyant, busy showbiz fantasy, "Burlesque" taps into the escapist mindset of FDR-era song-and-dance epics, following its heroine from grubbing for tips in an Iowa diner to basking in spotlights and applause as Hollywood's cabaret queen. In an age of ever-increasing economic inequality -- unhappy days are here again -- who can blame audiences for wanting to forget the headlines and dream a little?
The film is a feel-good Cinderella story, yet it frequently confronts our current grim realities. When we meet Christina Aguilera's Ali slaving away in a greasy spoon, she can't even get her surly manager to pony up last month's salary; she's reduced to raiding the cash register to buy a bus ticket to L.A. Desperate times make desperate women.
Once Ali arrives on Sunset Boulevard, she's mesmerized by the tatty glamour of the Burlesque Lounge, a vaudeville joint run with steely resolve by owner/choreographer/den mother Tess (Cher). Ali's dreams are on the verge of coming true as she insinuates her way onstage. But Tess is about to become another foreclosure statistic as she dodges bank threats and pressure from her ex-husband, Vince (Peter Gallagher), to sell while they still can. Playboy real estate developer Marcus (Eric Dane) is dangling a fat check in front of them, but Tess can't bear the thought of life away from the limelight.
Stories of this sort play out with a kabuki-like formality. Naturally Marcus will be smitten with Ali, introducing her to a life of glittering parties and elite, influential friends. But while her head tells her the tycoon would be a favorable match, her heart inclines in the direction of Jack (Cam Gigandet), the theater's bartender, who gallantly gave the newcomer a place to crash in his apartment until she could find lodgings. The rivals woo her, Marcus with pricey Christian Louboutin heels and Jack with his songwriting and low-budget charm.
If Ali were merely a showgirl on the hunt for a sugar daddy, there wouldn't be much of a movie. She has secret weapons -- a sharp mind, stage presence and a great voice -- and she handles them expertly. "Burlesque" is structured around a series of wacky, grandiose production numbers that erupt onscreen like explosions in a sequin factory. It's a wise choice to keep Aguilera singing rather than acting. Her larynx is a lot more expressive than her face. The same goes for Cher, who at this stage in her mummification looks like a PSA on the paralytic effects of Botox. Her scenes are so dimly lit that theaters should be hawking night-vision goggles. Her pipes are as good as ever, though. The acting responsibilities in the film are carried by the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci, exuding warmth and wisdom as the show's gay costumer. Not as bad as "Showgirls" but not nearly as good as "Chicago," "Burlesque" hits its marks and high-kicks its way offstage just before it gets the hook.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186