Lest anyone worry that the Magic Mike series has nothing left to say, or nothing on its mind but glistening abs, the third and allegedly final installment begins with a voice over—British, proper, authoritative—waxing rhapsodic about the role dance has played across all of human history. Such pontification is not so surprising coming from Steven Soderbergh, who recently kicked off a different film with a narrated flashback to the invention of money. But it’s still a concerningly academic way for this movie to start, and the first moment of several in Magic Mike’s Last Dance that might bring to mind the immortal words of Barton Fink ‘s Ben Geisler. Channing Tatum . Male stripper movie. What did Soderbergh need, a road map?
A decade ago, the director and his screenwriter, Reid Carolin, knew better than to overthink the story of a Florida exotic dancer balancing his daydreams of opening his own furniture store with his nightlife flashing flesh for cash. The original Magic Mike had a canny backstage intrigue; it was a satisfying mainstream melodrama enlivened by Tatum’s fictionalized insights into the seedy, gig-economy realities of stripping. The sequel , which Soderbergh only produced, jettisoned all that in favor of an episodic road trip of bromantic camaraderie and pleasure for all—a 180 that paid off.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance peaks early, when it’s briefly tapping back into the sultry charge of its predecessors. Having lost his furniture business to a partnership gone wrong, Mike Lane (Tatum) now bartends to make ends meet. It’s while serving drinks at a swanky soiree that he meets the impossibly wealthy Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), who catches wind of his professional past and awkwardly coaxes him out of retirement for the evening. Soderbergh, once more directing, uses seductively rhythmic editing to make Mike’s private dance feel like it’s stretching into blissful eternity. It might be the sexiest scene he’s staged since the hotel-room rendezvous of Out of Sight .
During a post-dance canoodle—the first moment that finds the two blurring the line between a romantic and a professional relationship—Maxandra offers Mike a more permanent opportunity. For a moment, we have to wonder if Soderbergh might be sending his protagonist further into the sex-worker economy, maybe into some exclusive gigolo version of the escort life he explored in The Girlfriend Experience . The reality turns out to be more innocent and improbable: Maxandra wants Mike to translate his gifts into choreography as the new artistic director of the London theater she’s taken from her ex-husband in the divorce. His first task: transform the creaky costume drama they’re putting on into an all-male revue.
On paper, it’s an unlikely but interesting direction for the story to take. If the first Magic Mike shrewdly dramatized Tatum’s humble real-life origins, this trilogy-capper could be said to fancifully mirror his recent step behind the camera. (He and Carolin co-directed last year’s Dog .) Yet setting aside the meta dimensions of the latter’s script, Magic Mike’s Last Dance gets curiously little juice out of its let’s-put-on-a-show narrative. Soderbergh keeps cutting around the cornball potential of the material. He spends too few scenes on Mike’s fish-out-of-water move into the British art world, and too many on the banal family life of Maxandra’s deadpan teenage daughter (Jemelia George) and loyal butler/chauffeur (Ayub Khan Din).
Introduced via an audition montage, the dancers of Mike’s newly assembled troupe are all played by actual dancers—a nice touch that ties this franchise to Tatum’s first one, Step Up . Yet would it have killed Soderbergh to supply any of them with personalities? Certainly, they’re never granted the dimension afforded the Kings of Tampa, here sadly squeezed into Zoom windows for a brief cameo. When the new group stages a flash mob to win over one of the bureaucrats trying to shut their show down (an ’80s crowd-pleaser cliché the movie barely bothers to commit to), it’s no match for the pro-bono charm offensives launched in Magic Mike XXL .
In Last Dance , it’s never even entirely clear how Mike feels about the chance for a new professional beginning. Maybe that’s just continuity of character, true to Tatum’s self-portrait of an amiable lunk going with the flow of what life tosses his way. But it leaves the movie emotionally unmoored, with no dramatic stakes. Mirroring Mike’s decision to include a woman in his show (you can’t really capture female desire without someone to represent it, he sensibly argues), the movie itself more or less positions Hayek as a co-lead. But Maxandra’s motives and desires are pretty sketchy, too. Is all this a Ted Lasso revenge plot on her ex? Is she just abstracting her hots for the friendly beefcake who rocked her hips and world? It’s telling that when the film needs to climactically drive home the romantic chemistry between the two, it simply cuts to earlier footage of the lap dance he gave her.
With Soderberg involved, Magic Mike’s Last Dance naturally has no shortage of ideas—about balancing commercial and artistic interests, about aging gracefully in an industry that values only your physical attributes, about the complicated nature of longing and contentment. But the other Magic Mike movies had ideas, too. They just managed to seed them into the cracks of first-rate entertainment. Lacking both the grit of part one and the comic joy of part two, Magic Mike’s Last Dance is one of those rare instances where Soderbergh gets lost in his egghead fixations—where his train of thought never merges onto the tracks of a satisfying movie.
Maxandra’s big idea is to shake up the stuffy London theater world with Mike’s real-world Florida authenticity. The irony is that the movie, all steak and no sizzle, suggests the reverse has happened: It’s like Magic Mike reconceived into conceptual theater for a “refined” crowd. By the time Last Dance reaches its, well, last dance—Mike’s big show, his merging of the reputable and the disreputable—it’s as though everything naughty and titillating has been stripped out of the franchise. Even “Pony” gets tamed. All the movie really bares is its intellectual pretensions. To paraphrase Barton Fink again, there’s plenty of poetry on that pole, Soderbergh.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance opens in theaters everywhere Friday, February 10.
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