The Cher I remember most fondly first came to my attention in 1985’s Mask, pretty standard ugly-duckling-who-teaches-us-all-about-true-beauty fare made glorious by endlessly quotable dialogue, Bob Seger tunes, and the world’s most intimidating mustache. But at its core, amidst the baseball cards that, at the time, spoke to my own adolescent obsession, there was Rusty Dennis, Rocky’s mom, the type of parental figure I longed for in my own life in that she encouraged profanity, brought home sweet-tempered hookers for her baby boy, and knew that after she removed the turnstile from her bedroom, she would eventually settle down with Sam Elliott. While my own father was skirting the IRS, loaning me small quantities of cash with more conditions than MoneyTree, and reducing weekend visits to endless hours stuffed into a smoke-filled office, Elliott’s Gar was painting on his “Free Mustache Rides” t-shirt and threatening carnival workers who gave his lover’s boy any lip. His almost other-worldly masculinity contrasted nicely with my own pop’s flabby rootlessness, unless of course laying a “nickel” on the over/under for the Chiefs game constituted gainful employment. At least Gar tinkered with motorcycles and paid his own bills.
But back to Cher. She was, at that time, more than Sonny’s better and taller half, and certainly a leg up on her early days where 90% of her tunes spoke to a mysterious Cherokee heritage. Then there was that Moonstruck thing, a Vegas gig, and poof – vanished — seemingly forever. And so now she’s back in Burlesque, a PG-13 all-stroke-and-no-finish romp through more sheer absurdities than we have any right to expect, even for a movie with Christina Aguilera. Cher is Tess, the tough-as-nails, yet vulnerable-when-she’s-gotta-be owner of the sort of club made redundant by internet porn and, well, the entire 1960s forward. But there she is, almost before our eyes have adjusted to the darkness, vamping and tramping in some sailor suit-cum-crotchless ballet outfit that wouldn’t make sense on a woman half her age. But Cher is 64, and with the minor touch-ups she’s secured over the years, she doesn’t look a day over Tutankhamun. To call her face immobile and impervious to air, light, and moisture is to challenge all prior knowledge of the natural world. She’s more than an off-the-Strip tranny act made flesh, she’s all but secured the next Twilight movie all to herself. Letting go of an audible gasp, punctuated by my wife’s tickled spasm, I immediately lost interest in every plot point that didn’t come back to Cher’s visage. Would she attempt a smile? Cry? For the love of Pete, sing?
That our beloved Tess is facing foreclosure on her Cabaret-inspired knockoff of what Showgirls and Coyote Ugly left on the cutting room floor should neither surprise nor alarm, as we have the nineteenth consecutive Stanley Tucci impression of the sassy gay man he denies actually being in real life. He’ll be there for every tear and threat, even if he just might have to tell her that it’s no longer worth fighting for. But not before we learn that years before, the two actually slept together, which just might be the most appropriately off-screen act in the history of the cinema. But they bicker and bitch and scratch like two old hens, which is just about the only way to avoid forcing Cher into another revealing get-up that no one’s asked for since Sonny slammed into that tree. Tess also has an ex-husband hanging around (Peter Gallagher), a pathetic low-life who begs Tess to sell the damn place because, atypically for such a character, he has debts. Perhaps the will-she-keep-the-homestead angle would have been enough for your typical Hollywood screenplay, but the gods of entertainment generously gave us a much-needed diversion from dull discussions of unpaid taxes and stacked-up bills. Oh yes, we have the country girl coming to the big city to fulfill her dreams. And why not make her an orphan with the voice of an angel?
Only it’s Christina Aguilera, and her voice, at least to these ears, better approximates a highway pile-up of warped Mariah Carey records and boiling cats than anything close to heaven. The master of taking a two minute, thirty-five second song and stretching it out to at least an hour, Aguilera is no one’s idea of a singer unless you like being yelled at by a woman in bright lipstick who looks like she might attack your cock. As always, Christina is cute and all, and sure, I’d shrug in sublime acceptance if she came to me nude and willing, but since this isn’t porn, it’s about her voice, and what skin she does reveal is laughably surrounded by some of Cher’s wardrobe leftovers. So while we wait for tits and ass that never really appear, we are forced to endure the tale of an Iowa farm girl who leaves her waitressing gig far, far behind so she can take Los Angeles by storm in all the time it takes for the light to change. I’ve never seen a faster rise to the top, and yes, I’ve seen Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer. And if any piece of dialogue eclipses the odes to Cher’s alleged beauty, it’s the notion that girrrl, this kid can sing! There’s even a “Stop the curtain!” moment for the cynics. But Tess, genius that she is, sees a way out of bankruptcy. This pipsqueak of a waitress can turn the club around, meaning that she plans on charging patrons $50 a head to see gay men and strip club rejects gyrate to the soundtrack of the damned. It’s the kind of quick thinking that builds empires, friends.
There are also two men competing for Christina’s heart, neither of whom generate any heat, although the rich dude must, it seems, turn out to be an asshole who wants Tess’ club for his own real estate empire that involves something he calls “air rights”. Scanning the dance hall, I also saw Alan Cumming aping Joel Grey to no real end, which was only slightly more irritating than a movement-by-movement rip-off scene from Midnight Cowboy that no one will recognize, and even fewer will care about. Kristen Bell is the rival with an edge, James Brolin gives the obligatory this-is-all-Babs-lets-me-do cameo, and, as if we had to guess, Cher is given her moment in the spotlight, which amounts to a final, before-the-grave pitch to the Academy for a Best Song Oscar. “You haven’t seen the last of me,” she groans, which, with my watch ticking off its 166th minute, is more threat than cry of defiance. I admired this woman, this mom-when-I-get-around-to-it ball of strength from my youth, but now she had nothing left to give. Forced into taking this schlock seriously, I felt betrayed. Surely any woman who gave birth to a female that is now a cock-and-balls man in real life could understand the camp value inherent in any project she’s involved in, right? And why not insist on final script approval, cut out the Aguilera bullshit, and strut around in the world’s most bizarre solo act? I could always hear “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” one more time. Anything but a trainload of clichés. So much for the dreams of youth.