‘Last Dance,’ and many more to come

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

8/10 Magic Mike’s Last Dance occupies a weird spot in history. It caps an unexpected trilogy of male stripper movies stretching back to 2012, but is both born out of and works to support the ways the brand is expanding in 2023. It does the business of, essentially, selling tickets for other media, but director Steven Soderbergh is back, and the humanity that’s made the series unique is on full display.

In Magic Mike’s Last Dance, “Magic” Mike Lane (Channing Tatum, who also produces), too old to strip, has taken to pop-up bartending gigs after his furniture store went under in the COVID-19 crisis. Max Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), love-starved in the middle of an upper-class divorce, gets wind that he used to be a stripper and offers him $6,000 for one last dance, and when Lane makes her feel things she’s never felt before, she offers him $60,000 to put on a show at her husband’s historic Rattigan Theatre in London.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance cannot be separated from “Magic Mike Live,” the show that started in Las Vegas in 2017 and grew into a global tour, expanding Magic Mike the movie into “Magic Mike” the global brand. This brand includes the reality competition show “Finding Magic Mike” in which “Magic Mike” is expanded from a specific person’s name into a title.

This reflects right back to the popularity of the series and what it represents. Magic Mike doesn’t just mean a show centered on female pleasure and the role reversal that comes with that, it means a show centered on male dancers, giving them the power and expressionism that comes with that position. The old James Bond phrase is “men want to be him and women want to be with him,” and Magic Mike, now as a multimedia platform with different shows that focus on different things,emphasizes both of those desires.

In its bare bones, Magic Mike’s Last Dance is a sendup of these two branches of the brand. The film walks through Lane putting on an in-universe performance of “Magic Mike Live” in a famous London theater, starting with a search for talent and sequential themed stripping competitions. It’s noticeable that outside of that opening dance, when Lane must seduce both Mendoza and the audience, the fantasy is almost always portrayed from Lane’s perspective outside the show. That’s because the film is mostly not about the sexual fantasy itself, but Tatum’s and Soderbergh’s work to put it on.

That makes the whole project sound pretty cynical, but the film itself is tip-top and perfectly demonstrates the less obvious ways Magic Mike has connected with so many viewers.

Shhh, this is our thing. We have the power!

Magic Mike’s Last Dance, like its predecessors, is a well-drawn, extremely sympathetic low-stakes drama about coming to terms with professional and personal dissatisfaction through sexual fantasy that addresses both the producer’s and the consumer’s perspective. It’s another deeply humanist movie from Soderbergh with a broad cast of characters who all have rich internal worlds. Watching it, I feel like I’ve known everyone onscreen for years, especially the worn-out butler, Victor (Ayub Khan Din).

It’s a last dance for a screen starved for sex, so starved that Warner lifted the film from direct-to-streaming to a Valentine’s Day release, a movement that seems incredibly out of place in the streaming and post-pandemic era and especially so for a company in such turmoil surrounding its streaming service. The change is in line with the companywide commitment, for a few months there at least, to prioritize cinematic experiences, but it was apparently due to eager reception at test screenings, and it speaks further to the niche Magic Mike has carved out in the overall culture.

Mainstream 21st century cinema is famously lacking in sexual desire and energy, and these movies are the high-profile exception. An audience that only goes to superhero movies will still be aware of the Magic Mike brand as the movies with sex in them. For viewers who actually check them out, Magic Mike means a movie about horny people who notice and lust after each other and who seek sexual fulfillment like real human beings.

They work mostly in the service industry, and the film addresses service industry ennui and service industry power dynamics. Mendoza offers Lane a life-changing amount of money for a party favor and then for a cross-continental business endeavor, and turning her down isn’t a realistic choice. Many of Soderbergh’s films address the way money makes choices for his characters, and Magic Mike’s Last Dance approaches this from both directions – we see both Lane not really being able to turn Mendoza down and also Mendoza’s own lack of certainty, which is a function of her personality, her dissatisfaction and the circumstances of her divorce. 

The screen is also starved for movies about female desire, which Magic Mike’s Last Dance not only provides, but interrogates. Lane is explicitly responsible for creating Mendoza’s upper class fantasy over an extended production instead of a single dance, something that can be recognized by an array of outside observers instead of the specific recipient of a lap dance, and he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Mendoza is a flighty woman, and the damage and exhaustion her inconsistent desires bring are written all over her London team when Lane gets there. The main threat of the film is that she’ll just lose interest and wander off at some point.

In many ways, Mendoza and her desires represent cinema itself – loaded to the gills, but bitterly unhappy and so starved for sex that one dance changes her life, and by extension, the lives of everyone who orbits around her resources.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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