This movie isn’t an earth-shaking masterpiece, but it isn’t nearly bad enough to deserve the dismissive reaction it generally gets, and is actually a really solid, enjoyable viewing experience. The movie has been called on the carpet for having a clichéd plot, but since it’s essentially a tribute to early Hollywood musicals like those of Busby Berkely dressed up in a thin façade of modern trappings, the abundance of familiar backstager tropes was presumably deliberate, and actually helps the movie to achieve its intended effect.
It gets compared a lot to Showgirls, especially by ignorant online critics too young and stupid to know about the movies it’s attempting to pay tribute to, probably because of the setting (or rather the title, since the movie establishes very clearly that despite its name, the titular club is not a strip club). But it has nothing in common with that famous disaster beyond a few extremely superficial features that could be just as easily applied to any number of other films. They aren’t even referencing the same archetypical Hollywood plot; Burlesque is imitating 42nd Street, where the innocent young talent gets to go on because the previous star stormed out, whereas Showgirls was going for the more sinister All About Eve, where the up-and-comer creates her own opportunity to go on in the star’s place through treachery.
In any case, the primary point of the old-school film musicals Burlesque draws on was to showcase wonderful musical performances and production numbers, and that quota is more than filled here. The visuals are eye-poppingly sumptuous, almost on the level of Moulin Rouge but in a film that lacks that effort’s distracting problems in music and story, and Christina Aguilera acquits herself far better in her film debut than any of the other female pop singers to attempt it in the recent past. Her acting is merely adequate, but she reads lines convincingly and comes across as sufficiently likable, and her singing is the same spectacular work she’s always brought to her career as a pop singer. Offered a chance to perform an entire tunestack of the classic Jazz and Blues standards that have always suited her voice so well, this film’s soundtrack represents the finest set of songs Aguilera has ever laid down.
Her co-star Cher, while she brings a suitable grandeur to the Burlesque Club’s imperious, world-weary owner, doesn’t participate in the music as much as might be expected, but she does gets one stunning moment to shine with the epic ballad “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me”. Probably the best thing ever to come from high-profile Easy Listening hack Diane Warren’s pen, it was clearly intended as a bid for a Best Song Oscar and frankly deserved at least a nomination.
This isn’t an ambitious film, but for what it is it is a near-complete success, spectacular in its musical and visual showcase moments and more than watchable in the spaces in between, and it deserves much better than the dismissive reviews and lukewarm success it has received. I guess that, ironically enough for such an unambitious and unpretentious work, it takes a certain level of culture these days to accept the bygone conventions this movie tries to resurrect, but if you have a fondness for olden-day Hollywood musicals and a willingness to accept a pop singer trying her hand at classic standards, I think you’ll find this movie to be a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.