Early on in Burlesque we meet Ali (Christina Aguilera), a scrappy hash-slinger, as she dons her platforms and stomps out of an Iowa trailer park with a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Ali stumbles into a Liza Minnelli fever dream when she sees the ghoulish Tess—or Cher—camping in spangles, and sees her future reflected in their glare. It's like a drag show with actual women! The motherless Ali knows she is finally home.
The current burlesque revival yearns for the days when skin shows had "class." Did this time ever exist? Photographs of pioneers like Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio made them look like any glamorous starlet of the day. Madonna validated the idea that women can exploit themselves sexually and remain in control, but there is still something a little queasy-making about the objectification that is sentimentalized in Burlesque.
Aguilera's acting skills are modest, but she certainly knows how to work a song—even when—or especially when—naked behind ostrich feather fans. Cher, a latter-day Marlene Dietrich who bares her limbs as long as we'll have her, can certainly act, but as a plumped and stretched version of her former self, her instrument is diminished. Stanley Tucci revives his Gay Best Friend routine from The Devil Wears Prada, and Alan Cumming (wasted in a throwaway role) provides Cabaret bona fides. Cam Gigandet works the guyliner as Ali's unappreciated (straight) admirer, while Kristen Bell fails to tart up her wholesome image in spite of the Anita Morris lace jumpsuit she wears.
Aguilera, who has become instantly passé in Lady Gaga's gigantic shadow, needs a new direction for her career, but this seems a misstep. Writer-director Steven Antin (from The Goonies, really?) has assembled a congealed mishmash of every rags-to-riches show biz tale that ever was, a T-&-A 42nd Street. His confection is more like a loss leader for iTunes downloads than a film, or a very special slutty episode of Glee.