One More Time
This article appeared in the February 9, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance (Steven Soderbergh, 2023)
Mark Asch: Art and commerce, fantasy and reality, are the thesis and antithesis of the Magic Mike series—three films now, each about the production of a male revue, which collectively demonstrate that “Let’s put on a show” can be either cynical or guileless. The original Magic Mike, directed by Soderbergh and released in the post–Great Recession days of 2012, caustically portrayed Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) as a struggling gig worker clinging to a false dream of entrepreneurship. Soderbergh stepped aside for 2015’s Magic Mike XXL, which, picking up on the appeal of Tatum’s athleisure bod and Southern manners, fed the female gaze with a rhapsodic appreciation of male bodies and the “queens” for whose pleasure they stay in motion—so delectably that it spawned a real live show, Magic Mike Live, directed by Tatum, which you can currently see in London, Las Vegas, and on a North American tour.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance, once again directed by Soderbergh and produced by Tatum, attempts—as if by magic!—to synthesize the dialectic of the first two films. Spurned billionairess Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault) offers Mike an obscene salary to come to London to revamp a stodgy old theater she owns by directing a live production much like Magic Mike Live. So failed capitalist striver Mike at last follows Tatum’s own rise to the role of theatrical impresario. Though bankrolled by his big-money partner, he is really performing out of love, for her and for the game. (As is, presumably, Salma Hayek Pinault, the real-life wife of a billionaire, who certainly doesn’t need the gig; Soderbergh even has Hayek Pinault perform one of her most intense scenes in front of a television reporting on the stock prices of companies including Puma, in which the actress’s husband is an investor.) Throughout, voiceover narration by Max’s daughter, Zadie (Jemelia George), muses on the nature of dance, describing it as the expression of a primal human urge for genuine connection. The film’s final shot, of counterfeit singles strewn across the floor, illustrates the point that money isn’t everything. Mike’s performance, and the film itself, is an honest-to-god Boyfriend Experience, to paraphrase the title of another Soderbergh film about work for hire.
So then, I found the film implicitly rather than explicitly cynical: Soderbergh’s establishing-shot montage of London is quite snide, cutting together images not just of famous tourist attractions but also of cheap, plastic souvenirs of them: a Big Ben keychain, a red telephone box magnet. Which makes sense since Magic Mike’s Last Dance is itself an advertisement for a tourist attraction. The show that Mike and Max put on is essentially Magic Mike Live, with much of the same choreography as well as much of the London cast. I’m aware that there’s a joke to be made at my expense for, in stereotypically abdominally-challenged cishet male film critic fashion, writing so much about Magic Mike while studiously ignoring the elephant in the champagne room: I’m not exactly the target audience for what this film is selling. So, ladies: was Magic Mike’s Last Dance a good advertisement for Magic Mike Live?
Beatrice Loayza: Yes and no. The thing is, my desire to be pinned beneath a wiggling Channing Tatumesque stud—or at least to admire the whole thing from the sweat-splattered sidelines—has been locked in place since watching the original Magic Mike. Even back then I thought, alright (alright, alright), how do I get in on this action?—something that had never really occurred to me before the franchise made male revues seem wildly appealing.
So Last Dance neither sells me on the live version (I’ve been sold for a while, even if it strikes me as a tourist’s version of the real thing, too) nor does it push me away. It’s the most lackluster entry in the trilogy—low on dancing and giddy himbo camaraderie relative to the first two—even if it does boast one particularly, um, slippery scene that stands among the series’ most transportive numbers. I think back fondly to the thrill of watching Mike peel off his blobby sweatsuit and unveiling his crisp abs to the snake-charming rhythms of Ginuwine. This time around, however, “Pony” comes in threes, with a trio of nameless dudes from Mike and Max’s elite squadron of dancers rehashing the iconic scene, a move that aligns with the franchise logic of resurrecting elements from previous installments for that kick of nostalgia. It’s never as effective as coming up with a new groove.
That said, I think there is something smart, or at least novel, about the way Last Dance does depart from its predecessors. The first one is about demystifying a taboo realm of work through the skill and charm and grievances of its employees; the second more explicitly about such work’s utopic dimension, the way it heals and bonds—we see a bunch of straight guys celebrating each other’s big dicks, finding pleasure in rousing the repressed masses. (Remember Joe Manganiello shimmying through a gas station as the boys cheer him on, his moves practically unfastening the droopy cashier’s corset?) With Last Dance, Soderbergh takes these notes and gives them the life-as-theater treatment. I thought of Jean Renoir’s unofficial “spectacle” trilogy, particularly French Cancan (1955). That’s certainly dignifying what is ultimately a lower-tier Soderbergh movie, but the parallels remain: it’s about an unhinged zillionaire with dreams of committing her vision to reality and a proletarian dreamboat who makes it happen. Much in the same way that the raunchy cancan literally breaks down the walls of the Moulin Rouge, ushering in a new and liberated form of entertainment, Max and Mike’s show disrupts the status quo of a historic venue known for stagings of reputable classic (i.e. misogynistic) plays. And it just so happens that Max’s dream is a wet one.
Devika Girish: Okay, here’s what I do want: shiny, sweaty men gyrating on me, no (G-)strings attached. Here’s what I do not want: “everything.” The (hip-)thrust of the show-within-the-show in Magic Mike’s Last Dance (though not of the show itself, which I’ll get to later) is that women should be able to have it all: money, love, sex, tenderness, puppies… dick, but not “dick only,” to paraphrase Maxandra. But if I wanted a fantasy about women getting wooed, I’d watch the movies of Nora Ephron! Or those ’90s flicks with Hugh Grant! Or Cinderella! Romantic fantasies can of course be combustible fuel for sexual fantasies—as Magic Mike XXL demonstrates with Joe Manganiello’s smooth-as-butter “Marry You” act—but romantic fantasies geared toward women aren’t new, and aren’t in themselves feminist, which is something Magic Mike’s Last Dance desperately wants to be. I come to Magic Mike not for female salvation or empowerment but for female lust, isolated and centered and served in a manner rare in mainstream cinema. I want objectification, spectacle, disposability—all those “bad” things that, as the last two movies in this franchise demonstrated, can be very fun things, given the right power and economic dynamics.
Call me the Grinch but my problem with Magic Mike’s Last Dance is the rosy-eyed romance of it all. In the previous outings, love was second to money; romance was the subplot to the main gig, which was about building a successful business or winning a contest while handling the fickleness and the respectability politics of the profession. Here, the entire shenanigans are to… win a girl? Mike says several times in the film that he doesn’t care about the money; he just wants to make Max happy. Heterosexual romance, the very thing the other two movies displaced from their center to ground us in a different kind of pleasure—one that operated purely on the level of scopophilia—takes precedence here. So much so, that the climactic on-stage romp of Mike’s show is cut up with flashback scenes of Max and Mike gazing and grazing at each other cheesily. The power of erotic spectacle is that it can take us out of narrative and hold us in a thrall bereft of reason or logic; to have plot penetrate the dream is to break its spell.
The reason the first two movies so delighted women despite being all about men is that they didn’t bother to tell us what women should want. They gave us a range of full-bodied, fully fleshed-out men and allowed us to peep from the dark shadows outside of the frame, voyeurs free to choose what turns us on, unburdened by having to find a point of view within the film. It was how Soderbergh and Co. slyly circumvented one of the infamous blindspots of male-gaze theory: the fact that desire operates in non-binaried ways; that men like looking at men, too, and women like looking at women. By casting Matt Bomer as one of the strippers, the first two entries tapped into a gay audience while also hinting at the demands of a job where your own desires are repressed for the unleashing of others’ stifled needs. In Magic Mike’s Last Dance, the dancers are nameless background extras, together amounting to a nebulous construct: Man. Where are the detailed characters that offered us a diversity of insights into the workings of gender, sex, and capitalism?
Mark: Devika, like you, I was left a little… unsatisfied by the movie’s foregrounding of heterosexual romance, though I found myself missing something else, too: homosocial bonding. The dancers in the new film are always all together, a chorus, and we never get to know them, not even through reductive screenwriterly personality quirks or assumed on-stage personae. The film feels very much like an adaptation of a stage show with set choreography and a rotating cast, in which every dancer is replaceable. Though the guys are introduced in a montage which presents them as a Rainbow Coalition of dance styles—breaking, popping, krumping, bachata—they’re far more blenderized than in Magic Mike XXL, with its openness about the racial politics of dancing.
On the reality show Finding Magic Mike, which Warner Bros. Discovery inexplicably pulled from HBO Max shortly before the release of this film, amateur contestants competed for a cash prize and a spot in one of the Magic Mike Live casts. It was great TV, featuring contestants who got booted for violating COVID-19 protocols and sustaining gruesome injuries, but it also offered far more insight than this film does into what it means to express yourself with a male or masculine body. As the guys struggled to master the choreography—for a judging panel that included Alison Faulk, choreographer of all three Magic Mike films, as well as Magic Mike Live—we got to appreciate the physical intricacies of the dances that materialize as if out of thin air in Magic Mike’s Last Dance. The show also went into far more detail about the considerations of intimacy among the dancers, and between them and their audiences. The contestants vied for camera time by preening and acting standoffish, or by opening up to each other about their sexualities and body-image issues.
I love and cherish my homies, while also recognizing that our friendships have always been complicated by competitiveness and by the difficult conversations men often dodge. I think a big part of the utopian pleasure of Magic Mike XXL—one of the ways it opens itself up, as Devika says, to be simply seen—is by presenting as idealized a vision of hetero-male friendship as it does of the male physique. A neat trick of the first two Magic Mike movies was their simultaneous, unapologetic catering to female fantasy and their commitment to the Dudes Rock ethos—because these two strands are actually intertwined, a double helix of what Beatrice calls “giddy himbo camaraderie,” forged through vulnerability.
Devika: There’s also the fact that whom you relate to and whom you desire on-screen doesn’t map directly onto gender; there’s a variety of other vectors at play in the game of gazes, class being a significant one. Let’s get back to that girlboss line of dialogue early in the film that suggests that a woman shouldn’t have to choose between a rich dick and “a poor guy with a heart of gold”—a stance that, admittedly, the movie contradicts by having Max choose Mike over her frumpy finance power-player husband. Yet their dynamic is not as simple as man and woman. It is wealthy business owner (and potential union-buster, given Max’s glee at the prospect of hiring non-union dancers) and gig worker—i.e., a person who can buy pleasure and a person who can only sell it—which could have been hot if Mike were ever shown being dommed or properly sugar-mommied by Max. Instead, Max is the vessel for the film’s tame empowerment drivel, and the limited scope of Mike’s own choices—which the previous movies drove home even as they dazzled us with a distinctly utopian worldview of stripping—is relegated to a few stern lines of voiceover from Max’s daughter. When Mike begins his lap dance for Max in the film’s opening scenes, he tells her to let him know if he exceeds her comfort zone; Max—the person paying him to dance for her in her home—responds with “I’ll slap you,” a moment that elicited laughs in the theater. Not only is it a bad look for a movie that later devotes a whole set piece to how permission, a.k.a. consent, is sexy, it’s also a major turn off for those of us who might relate more strongly to the category of “gig worker” than “woman.”
Beatrice: It’s true that even more than the previous Mikes, Last Dance is hyper-conscious of its own relationship to freedom and fantasy, particularly women’s fantasy, and there are some eye-rolling bits in which Max talks up the righteousness of her efforts to upend the patriarchy. But I think the film owns its feminist double-edged sword. Like Mark said, it’s cynical. Here we have a filthy rich girlboss throwing cash at a good thing—tender Mike, a show that sticks it to the mores of polite society—and validating (albeit super decadently) her own desires in the process. The film’s ostensible bottom-line—that a girl can have it all—reads to me with a bit of a smirk. Even when Max finds herself powerless in the face of her conniving ex, her investment saves the day. Mike is magic, after all, and he will give his queen what she wants: a fabulous show, a reenactment of their romance, and a happily-ever-after. It almost doesn’t matter that Tatum and Hayek Pinault don’t have the best chemistry, that their characters’ love isn’t totally believable, because everything has the air of a fiction only money can buy, with Zadie’s mythologizing narration adding some fairytale flair. “No happy ending,” says Max before the opening dance scene between her and Mike. But by the end of the song, we see the two in a postcoital embrace. And you know what the French say about happy endings—with climax, desire lies dead in a ditch.
Mark Asch is the author of Close-Ups: New York Movies and a contributor to Reverse Shot, Filmmaker, Little White Lies, Animus, Screen Slate, and other publications.
Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, the Criterion Collection, Artforum, 4Columns, and other publications.
Devika Girish is the co-deputy editor of Film Comment and a Talks programmer for the New York Film Festival.