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How much burlesque is in Burlesque? I’m no expert, but the Christina Aguilera vehicle feels a lot more like a showcase for big theatrical numbers from a pop star’s summer tour than like anything you might see in a real burlesque show. It takes more than striped tights and a tiny role for Alan Cumming to be convincing, darlings, and nothing about this paint-by-numbers film even borders on believable. Aguilera, pert and pouty, plays Ali, a small-town girl who hops a bus to L.A., ostensibly fails at a bunch of singer/dancer auditions (seen only as she crosses them out in a paper), then wanders, wide-eyed, into the Burlesque Lounge. Ali seems to exist in a time without cell phones or MTV, despite her modern (if Flashdance-influenced) attire; “What is this place?” she asks, awestruck. She wants to be like those girls! The ones in the bustiers and tights! She had no idea! But she’s got the talent, dang it! If only Tess (Cher), who runs the place, would give her a chance.
On occasion, Burlesque does something faintly surprising or dimly charming, like casting Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as the catty Nikki, whose only personality trait is that she doesn’t like people touching her stuff, or snagging Stanley Tucci for a role not entirely unlike his Devil Wears Prada character. But more often, it does things like using the interchangeably, safely blondish Cam Gigandet (Twilight) and Eric Dane (Grey’s Anatomy) as Ali’s polar-opposite suitors. Gigandet, as bartender/songwriter Jack, gets eyeliner; Dane gets to be the greedy capitalist whose machinations threaten the Lounge’s survival and — no way! — provide its salvation. But really, who cares? Burlesque is the sort of film that includes a “rehearsal” for the next day’s show that simply involves Cher, alone on stage, meaningfully belting out a never-to-be-heard-again song to a recorded accompaniment. It’s the sort of film where logic need not apply; just add water (and, to be fair, Aguilera’s set of pipes) to these pre-mixed plot points, and you have a film that neither gets as campy as Showgirls nor dares to be anything other than safely sincere. High School Burlesque Musical, anyone? — Molly Templeton