The party is definitely over in Magic Mike’s Last Dance, with the return of Steven Soderbergh bringing the once-promising male stripper saga to an ignominious end.
Soderbergh may have originated this story, but it arguably went in a far better direction without him in Magic Mike XXL. Money is money, though, and the message of love and empowerment in that film proves to be an awkward fit for Soderbergh, whose films typically explore how power and money can twist their way through lives to various effects, some enjoyable, some not.
The first Magic Mike film was ultimately a cautionary tale which had far more in common with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet than its own sequel. Both films followed men who delved into the seedy underbelly of their respective, albeit quite different towns, and had to learn how to set aside darkly enticing thrills and seductive brunettes for the wholesome, respectably beautiful blonde who embodied the promise of happy, heteronormative monogamy.
But once the cat was away, Magic Mike XXL took on a more playful, joyful tone, taking the values of its origin story and allowing its men to follow arcs that were typically reserved for women. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, seeing as how Mike and his crew were routinely objectified and tossed aside in a manner typically reserved for their female counterparts.
Yet rather than taking the far more common, toxic route, the guys allowed each other to be honest and vulnerable, then extended that same grace to the women who enjoyed their services, as well as to those who found power (or at least some fun times) within the limits imposed on them, including the LGBTQ community.
“The party is definitely over in Magic Mike’s Last Dance, with the return of Steven Soderbergh bringing the once promising male stripper saga to an ignominious end.”
For all that, continuation rather than replication should be the goal, even if it’s a tougher sell than ever in a film that closely resembles the industry itself, where ageism is both open and rampant, and money is even less likely to end up in the hands of those who weren’t born with it. Mike is no exception in Last Dance, and as Channing Tatum returns to the role he helped originate, it’s at a time when the now ex-stripper is more lost than ever.
The narrator spells out his painfully familiar situation succinctly enough—the economy and the pandemic have left him alone, adrift, and bartending at various ritzy gigs with a number of failed relationships scattered in his wake.
It is in this state that he meets London socialite Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek), who is similarly flailing after her divorce. When she hires Mike for a private dance, it’s clear he hasn’t lost a step. As films are finally beginning to acknowledge, sex work is often about far more than the act itself, and there are echoes of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande as Mike calmly and professionally arranges things for Max’s comfort and gives her a dance that is one of the most artfully seductive in film, effectively leading her into the bedroom with no words required.
Their time together revitalizes and inspires Max to the degree that she invites him back to London to rework a show at the family-owned theatre where she was once a young aspiring actress with all of three lines, only to be scooped up by the controlling, wealthy husband she’s now in the process of leaving. Mike then finds himself in charge of a major production, discovering new dancers and carefully attempting to manoeuvre and manage the whims of the upper crust.
“The real shocker in Last Dance is how little is interesting to watch.”
The real shocker in Last Dance is how little is interesting to watch. Soderbergh’s gaze is so coldly appraising when bodies aren’t in motion that money emerges as the shaping force, not character, and every beat is in service to it. Anyone who doesn’t have some kind of direct connection to it, whether through family, politics, servitude, or the bedroom, is disallowed a voice. It’s depersonalized to such extremes that none of the other dancers Mike discovers are distinctive enough to have names (even in IMDB credits), with his old crew reduced to a mere Zoom cameo.
This is especially unpromising for the women that Magic Mike’s Last Dance is claiming to empower, given how their purchasing power and choices have been historically sidelined. But this could hardly be called the sum of women’s lives, and women’s fiction is full of the numerous ways female characters have ingeniously found their way to at least work within their restrictions, or even claim agency for themselves.
XXL understood this complexity, but Last Dance is far too invested in power itself to explore it, openly ridiculing many of the standard beats of women’s entertainment (then indulging in what it disdains), going so far to remove Max’s daughter and the movie’s narrator Zadie (Jemelia George) from the room for much of the film’s climax, and outright covering her eyes. How any of this is in the best interests of the women it claims to know is a mystery, especially when it’s unable to imagine the existence of those who aren’t straight and moneyed.
Is this what the movie had in mind when Hayek quipped, “No happy endings,” to Mike when they geared up for their first dance? She changed her mind, but Last Dance seems determined to withhold anything that could pass for that, bros and shows included.