The opening scene of Burlesque tells the story: Ali, our plucky ingenue, logs time as a diner waitress in the corn-tinted town of Genericsville, Iowa. Scraping together $16 in tips and the remaining cash in the till, she announces that she's leaving by bus to pursue her Hollywood ambitions. But before she hops aboard that Greyhound of Broken Dreams, Ali closes up the restaurant, plugs a quarter in the jukebox and shows us what she's got -- and the Etta James cover that comes out of her mouth sounds less like raw karaoke than a studio track fussed over by a small army of producers and technicians.
There's the Burlesque formula in a nutshell: an assemblage of cliches -- A Star Is Born by way of a broadcast-friendly Showgirls -- presented with maximum gloss. But damned if it isn't guilty fun anyway, a camp extravaganza that not only seems conscious of its cliches, but treats each one like a beautiful sequin glue-gunned onto a tattered gown. Writer-director Steven Antin seeks to transport audiences to a world that doesn't exist outside old MGM musicals or drag shows, but that stands in here for modern-day Sunset Boulevard. It's silly and often laughable, but it's a sweet fantasy, too, produced in loving homage to the frothiest traditions of stage and screen.
In a robust attempt at career rehabilitation, singer Christina Aguilera acquits herself well as Ali -- or well enough, at least, relative to the pop catastrophes of Britney Spears in Crossroads and Mariah Carey in Glitter. The proverbial farm girl fresh off the bus, Ali fumbles through a few open auditions before discovering the Burlesque Lounge, a turn-of-the-century-style music hall that's fallen on hard times.
Looking like an airbrushed magazine photo with legs, Cher plays the club's proprietor, Tess, an imperious den mother who refuses to sell off the struggling business to a greedy developer despite the risk of imminent closure. Starting as a waitress, Ali hustles her way onto a kick line before hitting Cher with a big, fortune-reversing proposition: Instead of lip-syncing to old standards, she can belt them out live.
The plotting doesn't come close to stopping there, not in a movie so shamelessly florid that it finds roles for Alan Cumming, Peter Gallagher and Stanley Tucci. There are dual love interests for Ali in the free-spending developer (Eric Dane) and a young bartender (Cam Gigandet) who's working on a very special song he can't ... quite ... finish; there's a backstage rivalry with a catty Queen Bee type (Kristen Bell) who perpetually reeks of booze; and enough tortured back story on Tess to give Cher her own excruciating, Diane Warren-penned pity ballad.
Despite the racks of vintage see-through lingerie, the musical numbers in Burlesque are as cheerily sexless as Disney on Broadway, but they're a fine platform for Aguilera's vocal acrobatics, which could be described as a kind of bluesy screeching. Cher fares better in a role that both flatters her gay-icon status and keenly exploits her depth of experience in the cruel world of showbiz. Mostly, though, Burlesque delights in the fundamental pleasures of dressing up and putting on a show -- the more garish and overheated, the better.