Camp vs. Cheese — Guess Where ‘Burlesque’ Lands

Review: Aguilera strives painfully for sincerity but, other than that giant battleship of a voice, is cutesy bland at best, annoyingly arch at worst

Susan Sontag first earned renown as an intellectual smarty-pants when she published a now famous essay on camp in 1964 in the Partisan Review. In it, she wrote, “The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

Oh, that she were still alive to see “Burlesque.”

Of course, she would then have to write an addendum noting the difference between camp and, well, cheese. “Burlesque” is 100 percent cheese — and a stinky one at that.

This tale of an ambitious young singer (Christina Aguilera) and the veteran burlesque club owner and performer (Cher) who becomes her mentor lacks a single original thought, plot twist, line of dialogue or performance.

And that’s the difference between camp and cheese. Camp is fun and entertaining, even as it tweaks the familiar. Cheese just aspires to be camp and fails.

Of course, one can always hope with cheese that it will be so bad that it’s good. The original “Rocky” movie is cheese supreme, pulling out all the stops and yet winning you over. That’s because writer-star Sylvester Stallone truly believed in his tale of a journeyman boxer who wouldn’t quit. He thought he was making a great movie and, in a way, he was.

Unfortunately, most cheesy movies doesn’t have the courage of their convictions. They’re meant to be superficial, clichéd and to evoke knee-jerk responses. They end up stupefyingly boring. Think “Showgirls” and “Hudson Hawk.” Where they should be light of touch, they’re heavy handed; where they should be genuinely affecting, they’re as cheaply sentimental as a gum-machine wedding ring.

“Burlesque,” the debut film from writer-director Steven Antin, is hold-your-nose bad. And at a nearly two-hour running time, unnecessarily self-indulgent.

Aguilera plays Ali, an aspiring singer who, as the opening credits roll, quits her jobs as a waitress in a small Iowa town and buys a bus ticket to Los Angeles.

“One-way or roundtrip?” the bus station clerk asks.    

“You’re kidding, right?” Ali responds.

Once in L.A., she rents a room in a fleabag hotel and lands a job as a cocktail waitress at the Burlesque Lounge, an improbably upscale, “Cabaret”-esque club run by Tess (Cher).

This is a burlesque theater, we’re told, not a strip club. The difference: The scantily clad performers never doff their tops, and there is nary a pole in sight. Instead, the performers lip-sync to songs while thrusting their pelvises in third-rate, faux Bob Fosse routines.

Ali takes one look and wants in. She soon joins the chorus and then, quicker than you can say “42nd Street,” saves the show by belting out a big number sans amplification when the mikes go dead. The very next day, Tess has rebuilt the act around her.

Cut to packed seats and Ali’s picture on the front of the Sunday Calendar section.

Not that all is well in Burlesque Town. Tess is in danger of losing her club to the bank; the cute bartender-songwriter (Cam Gigandet) who keeps making eyes at Ali still has a fiancée in New York; and a smooth, wealthy real-estate developer (Eric Dane) is covetous of both Ali and the club.

These are but speed bumps in between “Burlesque’s” endless, ersatz Vegas-like production numbers, most featuring Aguilera and two with Cher. These numbers are cut to resemble MTV videos of a decade ago, and one song is indistinguishable from the next, other than when Cher sings an “I Will Survive”-type anthem solo on a darkened stage after the club has closed for the night.

If Aguilera has a movie career beyond this turkey — how appropriate that it’s opening near Thanksgiving — she’ll be lucky. She strives painfully for sincerity but, other than that giant battleship of a voice, is cutesy bland at best, annoyingly arch at worst.

Cher, in her first movie in seven years, looks as, ahem, young as ever, which is a problem since the upper half of her face no longer moves. Fortunately, her eyes are expressive and her voice still capable of laying others out cold with its tone of withering sarcasm. (Her hands are visible in several close-up shots, only serving to remind us that on some body parts even Cher can’t turn back time.)   

Having said all that, “Burlesque” is exactly the kind of movie — hello “Flashdance” — that back when I was in my teens and early twenties would get massacred by critics and then I’d go see it and think it wasn’t as bad as they’d all said. But it was. I just hadn’t already seen the 20 better versions of the movie from which it stole shamelessly.

Go see the 20 better versions. Any backstage musical with Judy Garland; "Funny Girl" with Streisand; "Lady Sings the Blues" with Diana Ross." Hell, even "Dream Girls."