‘Magic Mike’s Last Dance’ Raucously Remixes Gene Kelly For The G-String Set [Review]
Feb 14, 2023
At some point in the last decade, it became critical canon that the “Magic Mike” movies were “about” something. The sexy strippers were a nice marketing hook, but the films had a Trojan element to them – that’s the horse, not the condoms – for filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and crew. The first film in 2012 was “about” the economy. The sequel in 2015 was “about” female pleasure and the construction of the gaze. The completion of the trilogy, “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” is “about”… the very construction of art itself.
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The film provides a peek behind the curtain more than a look inside the drawers for Soderbergh and the franchise’s other dominant creative force, Channing Tatum. The star’s titular character, a stripper-cum-furniture design magnate wrecked by the pandemic economy, faces an odd creative challenge after an impromptu solo lap dance for the wealthy Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault) inspires her to pursue a crazy idea. A theater owner thanks to her marriage into a family of media moguls, Maxandra tasks Mike with revamping the stodgy costume drama currently on her stage with his brand of inspired bodies in motion.
The entire concept driving the narrative of “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” feels a touch silly. But those willing to go with it – like they might have for a similar gambit in Gene Kelly’s no less plausible “An American in Paris” — will find Soderbergh, Tatum, and screenwriter Reid Carolin have put together a playful provocation about the generative process of art. The mythology of its creation centers around synapses firing in the brain or strings tugged in the heart. Mike Lane’s fish-out-of-water West End adventure poses a different method, one guided by following the pleasure generated from pelvic thrusts and undulating torsos.
This might sound academic and abstract, but the film still maintains the sincere core of the previous two installments. “Magic Mike” wants to center the viewer and have a good time, but it’s not afraid of deconstructing its sensationalism as it goes. Soderbergh is fully in his merry prankster bag in “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” muddling any attempt for a clean intellectual read of the film with some strategically placed snark. For example, he undercuts the film’s opening voiceover, which waxes poetic about the anthropological function of dance, by later revealing the source of narration as a precocious (and pretentious) teenager.
The two creative engines of the series might seem like strange bedfellows — the brainy Soderbergh and the brawny Tatum — but the duo brings out the best in each other. The director appreciates the earnestness of his leading man and finds ways to deepen that charm through quick-witted humor. Mike’s reflexive volleying of any praise, soft-selling his own sense of accomplishment, adds yet another winning and winking layer of self-awareness to Tatum’s star image. The actor, for his part, has pushed Soderbergh toward a richer cinematic expression that marries a formalist vocabulary of gesture within crowd-pleasing charms.
Soderbergh’s balance gets a little rickety here, though. The director is a scholar of genre filmmaking, and the series’ threequel strays the farthest from any familiar formula. “Magic Mike” was basically a sports movie; “Magic Mike XXL” hewed to the conventions of the road trip film; “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” comes closest to a studio-era musical where ecstatic emotion releases in stripping rather than singing. That freeform nature might frustrate as it ambles about, lacking the sense of propulsive forward motion that defined its predecessors. But that bizarre shapelessness of the film pays off in the climactic performance, which borders on Dadaist in its devotion to iterating all of Mike’s creative impulses.
For all intents and purposes, “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” is a pas de deux between Mike and Maxandra as they probe the boundaries of cohabitation and collaboration. That does mean missing the wider ensemble of Mike’s brothers in baring all, and not just familiar characters like Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie. The other strippers function as little more than chiseled cattle for Mike to move around the stage. Their lack of characterization has the somewhat unintended effect of depersonalizing the very people who are meant to be subjects, not just objects.
But the film isn’t their last dance, after all. That honor belongs to Mike, and Tatum rises to the occasion in a sequence that recalls the aforementioned screen legend Gene Kelly’s most significant numbers. (In case the cinematic lineage is not clear before, this sequence does occur quite literally in the rain.) Tatum’s scrappy, athletic sense of movement makes him a natural heir to Kelly in form, yet that style for the common man is not the only force uniting them. In “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” Tatum’s tightly choreographed set thrillingly achieves what the best-extended dance sequences in Kelly’s films did: sublimating both the narrative and emotional arcs of the movie into the motion of human bodies.
The key differentiator is in their sense of purpose. Kelly’s flights of fancy for the feet could have an “art for art’s sake” quality to them. For Tatum, eschewing the cerebral and embracing the corporeal, art is for our sake. [B]
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