‘Magic Mike’s Last Dance’ Is Very Unlikely to Turn You On
Something’s off about Magic Mike’s Last Dance. It starts off well enough — it gives us what we want by giving us more of what worked before — before it loses its way. But it opens enticingly, teasingly, like a fly.
Mike Lane (Channing Tatum), titular hero of the Magic Mike films, is no longer a male stripper. Gone is the guy who tried to turn this skill into a dream — a business. He’s catering an open bar, now: still Mike, still a flirt, still making husbands jealous, but with his shirt on this time. Until it isn’t. The woman throwing the party, Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), hears stories of Mike’s past as an erotic dancer. She pulls him into her mansion with a request: dance for me. In the movie’s single best scene — a writhing, acrobatic love-spectacle that sets director Steven Soderbergh’s camera swinging and swaying and makes all possible use of the furniture, going airborne against even her floor-to-ceiling glass windows as if no one could possibly be watching — Mike fulfills her request, and then some. They go to bed. Soon, she’s asking him to run away with her — to London. She hasn’t had her fill (no woman in the Magic Mike universe has, it seems). And soon, he’s saying yes. He doesn’t entirely know what she has in store for him overseas. But she’s willing to pay good money. And money is the thing that Mike has always needed.
Lest we begin to mistake Magic Mike for a kept man, which frankly doesn’t sound so bad, Maxandra has more than sex and private dances on her mind. That she has anything on her mind at all seems to be Magic Mike’s Last Dance’s central intervention: This is a movie that’s as much about the woman in Mike’s life as it is about Mike. All the wish-fulfillment and fantasy of Magic Mike (2012) and its sequel, Magic Mike XXL (2015), now finds its center in this powerful, monied divorcee who’s trying to make a statement about her life, her independence, her power. Courtesy, in part, of her ex-husband’s riches, Maxandra has a stake in a West End theater. She’s got a month left and a point to prove. Out goes the Ibsen-lite period feminist drama currently occupying the stage. In comes whatever Mike wants to put in its place. He’s the new, unwitting star director of Maxandra’s parting shot to her marriage, her newest project, the kind of sudden, fervent endeavor that her young daughter and endearingly grumpy driver, Victor (Ayub Khan Din), take great pleasure in rolling their eyes at.
Thus it all starts with Mike on the heels of a business deal gone wrong, licking his wounds and starving for cash, and quickly ascends to the kind of stroke of good luck you couldn’t reasonably dream of. Isn’t this what Mike has always wanted — a serious creative venture of his own, a way of paying his debts and exercising his imaginative will (and his abs, and also his crotch)? Maybe so. In between all the flexing and throwbacks to “Pony” and guys having a good time expressing themselves for women’s sake, the previous Magic Mike movies made room to remind us that the life of Magic Mike was always precarious, that he was a gig worker trying to get ahead, searching for stability in his professional life if not always romantically. Last Dance hits Mike from a different angle. It supposes that we already know that story: We already know Magic Mike is broke and we’ve seen firsthand what he’s willing to do, where he’s willing to go, to change that. It gives us someone else in search of a better version of themselves, instead: Maxandra the dissatisfied socialite, a woman clearly grasping at something, clearly at a crossroads when Mike’s swiveling hips enter her life. This movie is about her. Or, at least, it is desperately trying to be.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance keeps it simple. Mike and Maxandra pursue the dancer’s vision for their show, hunting down a crew of male dancers — breakdancers, mostly, but also a lithe Italian with clear modern dance training and a few guys whose main asset seems to be a plausible sense of rhythm and an approachable face — and dreaming up their show, which is far more of a male revue than the naughty-but-nice strip club affairs that dominated the last movie. That may prove a sore spot for some. The dancing in Last Dance is closer on the spectrum to an episode of So You Think You Can Dance? than it is to a giggly, googly-eyed bachelorette party. There are no cops or cowboys here, only smooth, clean-shaven guys without personalities, save for Mike. The movie’s drama is what it is, a lot of flitting about pretending that they won’t pull this off in time for their opening (but of course they will), with detours into the backstory of Maxandra’s marriage, the nosey concerns of Victor and her daughter, the fakeness of her friends, the uncertainties of what she really wants. We get a very Soderberghian detour into caper territory, when the men in the show have to hummina-hummina their way into a stodgy older woman’s heart to get the proper license for their one-night show, stalking and assessing her Ocean’s style, as if her will were a vault they were trying to break into. We get bedroom chatter between Maxandra and Mike that’s given a veneer of sexlessness — Maxandra doesn’t want to reduce this working relationship to just that — and a lot of arguing as their personalities clash.
In short, we get a lot. And yet Magic Mike’s Last Dance ends and it somewhat feels like it’s given us very little. Maybe it’s because we can tell, from the big finale, that this material played better elsewhere: It’s largely ripped from the Magic Mike Live show that played Vegas, Miami and London (and Ellen), and wears every bit of its borrowedness in every frame. Or maybe it’s because the chemistry’s off. Tatum and Hayek Pinault are never more convincing together than during their first encounter, when their bodies do the talking — even as a retread of the previous Magic Mike movies, the scene works. Or maybe it’s because Soderbergh’s admirably fast and loose style of late, with movies that feel as off the cuff and low-stakes, at times, as if they were made by professional amateurs, rather than by Hollywood’s biggest stars and one of its reigning directors, is at its most shambly here, a style in desperate need of a genuine spark. A definite demerit is the cutesy narration, courtesy of Maxandra’s daughter, which takes us a bit too far out of the moment whenever it crops up, as you might expect from a know-it-all teenager’s prim, well-read voice interjecting into the lives of grown-ass, horny adults.
There’s no mistaking what the movie is trying to do. In a recent Vanity Fair profile, Tatum likened the first two movies to “feathered-fish” affairs, movies that would find an audience (women) that the creators didn’t necessarily have in mind. The goal this time around was to offer a corrective to those films, which were about men, despite their appeal to women. Last Dance swings so far in the other direction that the male dancers are non-persons, more so than the women in the previous films ever were. Could you really claim that Andie MacDowell and Jada Pinkett Smith — extraordinary additions to XXL, bearing a tactile, intimate sense of life experience and personality — weren’t people? The writing of Last Dance, again the work of Tatum’s long-running collaborator Reid Carolin, is trying as hard to please as the men of the first two Magic Mikes were, only with about a thimbles’ worth of the finesse. Its charm, its cozy exploration of the woman at its center, is trying so hard that it forgets to feel specific. Hayek Pinault tries, but the movie sometimes feels like it’s left her to her own devices, charging her with filling in the chalk outline of an idea of a character.
Midway through one of the team’s early rehearsals, someone notices that Mike’s show, as it’s currently being envisioned, has no woman character. I detect a theme at work. And in that parallel, both Last Dance and its show-within-a-movie succumb to the same flaw: A woman given the platform to speak up, but not any sincere, original latitude to actually say something. You see the lady emcee of the show later on and remember that Pinkett Smith topped off the climax of XXL far more skillfully, sensuously; this rehash feels like the empty shell of an idea better explored last time. Same to Maxandra Mendoza, who isn’t so out of sync with MacDowell’s undersexed, underpleasured, mansion-dwelling heroine facing the loneliness of middle age. Let’s put it simply: She needs dick. Rooting for her to get laid is one of the erotic peaks of the movie. The slow-jam tease of the buildup makes the payoff worth it — and all of this in what amounts to only one chapter of the roving story.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance sticks to one place, but that isn’t why, in contrast to the best moments from the previous movies, it feels like it’s going nowhere. Tatum’s usual charm is at its limpest here — that can’t help. It’s strange. The premise of the dancing this time around is permission. Consent. No more throwing ladies around onstage as if they automatically agreed to it by virtue of being there. No more hip-breaking pyrotechnics to put Elvis to shame. Consent, in this new world, is foreplay. That’s admirable and, for many people, hot. It needn’t have given way to a movie that felt so tame. But tame is what Magic Mike’s Last Dance is — what it apparently wants to be, what it becomes in exchange for its new, cardboard-simple, ostensible pro-woman worldview. The movie’s pleasures mute themselves beneath its good intentions. It wants to be about what women want. But it feels like it never asked.