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Monday, December 13,2010

The Screening Room

'Burlesque' has become a box office surprise

by James Sanford

It’s not particularly shocking to see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” and Disney’s “Tangled” slugging it out for the dominant position atop the box office rankings. But what’s in the No. 3 position is something of a surprise: It’s “Burlesque,” the Cher and Christina Aguilera musical that has been scalded by most critics and embraced by many audiences, taking in $30 million in its first two weeks.


That’s more than some industry sages were expecting “Burlesque” to make in its entire run. Consider that Cher hasn’t graced a movie since 2003 and Aguilera, once a sure thing on the pop charts, has gotten more publicity for her divorce than she has for her recent “Bionic” CD. Plus, even in the best of times, musicals have a spotty track record at the cineplex: Even such Broadway blockbusters as “Rent” and “The Producers” proved to be high-profile non-starters on the big screen.


But “Burlesque” writer and director Steve Antin has concocted a film that somehow works, at least as far as ticket-buyers are concerned. “Burlesque” doesn’t set out to wow anyone with its originality; instead, it cobbles together a glittery collage of bits and pieces of other movies, almost like one of those “That’s Entertainment” compilations from the mid-1970s.


Antin shows us his game plan right off the bat as Aguilera’s character, a wide-eyed Iowa gal named Ali, wanders into Burlesque, the Sunset Strip club operated by tough-as-nails torch singer Tess (Cher). As Ali gazes in awe at a couple of the resident showgirls (Kristen Bell and Julianne Hough) shimmying their way through “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the ingenue suddenly has a vivid vision of herself up there on the stage, belting out the tune and winning over the crowd.


Let’s try to break this sequence down. The number Hough and Bell are performing is clearly a tribute to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s version of “Diamonds” in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” When Aguilera takes over, Antin stages the song so that it looks like an homage to Nicole Kidman’s performance of it in “Moulin Rouge.” On top of that, the whole idea of the wannabe star who projects herself into the spotlight is a not-so-subtle reference to the opening of the 2002 film version of “Chicago,” in which Renee Zellweger’s Roxie Hart imagines herself taking the place of Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) midway through “All That Jazz.”


If you want to keep track of the rest of the references strewn throughout “Burlesque,” you’d better get yourself a scorecard. Antin has seen a lot of movies, and he expects his audience has as well. Intriguingly, “Burlesque” doesn’t rip off images and ideas as much as it appropriates them. Antin knows many viewers will immediately identify his sources and he doesn’t make any apologies: If you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, hopefully you’ll go along for the ride.


Before its release, “Burlesque” was expected to be something along the lines of director Paul Verhoeven’s notorious “Showgirls” or Mariah Carey’s diva disaster “Glitter.” It’s not. The movie is smarter than either of those misbegotten projects because it never takes itself seriously or pretends to be “good,” in the traditional sense. It throws in enough outrageously overripe lines to keep the crowds chuckling — as when Tess bellows at an alcoholic dancer, “You’re throwing up everything but your memories!” — but it balances out the campiness with some genuinely strong production numbers. While Aguilera is no screen scorcher as an actress, she knows how to serve up a sultry song or two, and Cher (who has lost none of her signature sassiness and prickly charm) gives Aguilera a run for her money with her delivery of “Welcome to Burlesque” and especially the brazen ballad “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” which she rips into as if she’s been waiting to sing it her entire life.


“Burlesque” is nobody’s idea of a musical masterpiece, but it’s hard to argue it doesn’t deliver exactly what it promises: plenty of skin, a strong dose of razzle-dazzle, a few easy laughs and a pair of veteran songstresses doing what they do best. As Cher wryly sings in her opening tune, “It’s not the end of days — it’s just the bump and grind.”

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