Getting By
By Sam Bodrojan

Magic Mike’s Last Dance
Dir. Steven Soderbergh, U.S., Warner Bros.

“Te mueves como el agua,” Maxandra (Salma Hayek) whispers in bed to Channing Tatum’s eponymous dancer early in Magic Mike’s Last Dance. “I move like water?” he responds, giggling. “You weren’t supposed to understand that,” she replies, flustered. Later, on a group Zoom call, Mike nervously assures his old crew that his new gig will net him the cash to pay them back for their investment in his failed business. Series veteran Tito, played by Adam Rodriguez, tries to assuage his anxieties: “Money is water. It flows.”

Adrift in the gig economy, Mike has been picking up shifts as a bartender for a catering company. After working one of Maxandra’s charity events, she pulls him aside and offers to buy a lap dance, tipped off to his previous profession by her lawyer, a former customer of Mike’s. Following a night together, she offers him 60,000 dollars to direct a show for her back in her hometown of London. The only thing she has received in her ongoing divorce, thanks to an otherwise devastating prenup, is an old theater, which has hosted a stuffy, misogynistic melodrama for nearly two decades. In a gesture of defiant independence, or a cry for help, she plots to shutter the play and reopen the theater for one night as a stripping extravaganza, with Mike as the director. Mike takes the gig, because he needs the money—why else?

Steven Soderbergh returns as franchise director after taking on a more collaborative position with his regular AD Gregory Jacobs on Magic Mike XXL. So too returns his compositional bluntness, his infatuation with didactic exchanges made ethereal by a low-key tenor of performance, and his knack for genuinely radical digital cinematography. A worthy Soderbergh heroine caught between money and love, Maxandra is the heart of Last Dance. Delusional, vindictive, and wealthy, Max is so used to exploiting those around her to her own quixotic ends that she is completely unable to understand how she is perceived. She is so cripplingly afraid of her own desires that she projects her insecurities onto others, acting threatened whenever those around her are not persuaded by her omnidirectional and often short-lived enthusiasm. At the same time, that well-meaning passion and confidence are infectious.

She is one of those rare characters universal in her specificity. There are many women just like Maxandra. I know them. I feel for them. Hayek gives an extraordinary performance as this john, pathetic and selfish and endearing and wounded and strong-headed all at once. Max’s life is lonely, filled only by those she pays to stick around. Her adopted daughter Zadie, who talks of herself as if she is one of her mother’s phases, like a documentary project or a charity, narrates the film in voiceover. Max’s butler is in a state of perpetual exhaustion, as much an emotional support to her as Mike is.

In the film’s best scene, Maxandra takes Mike out for dinner. She brags about his artistic vision to her husband’s friends, yet refuses to let him speak, even in coded language, about himself. One guest asks him about an art fair in Miami. He plays dumb as a joke. Max anxiously covers for him, assuming he doesn’t know. In the car ride home, she rants about their inauthenticity, how badly she wished he would just tear his clothes off and start dancing on them at the table. She goes to kiss Mike, and he quickly pauses to ask for consent. Max becomes furious, believing he has rejected her out of judgment, feeling used for her money. In contrast to that first introductory lap dance, where boundaries and consent are negotiated near wordlessly with ease, the talking gets in the way here, leading to messy adult miscommunications that most studio films wouldn’t dare touch. It’s the kind of electric, messy evocation of how desire and power play out that has been the series’ bread and butter. The scene dramatizes the casual exploitation of a sex worker by a woman with financial hold over him, trying to live out a dream of female empowerment, in a text that refreshingly considers both sex workers and artists worthy of admiration and respect. The original Magic Mike had a handful of conversations at this caliber of nuance. MMXXL had dozens. Last Dance has one.

While this third installment demonstrates a fascinating evolution in how Soderbergh uses sex work as a barometer for the woes of capitalism, the film is frustrating in how it declines to ponder the present or future of the industry. We are far beyond the trite musings on the recession that bogged down 2012’s first entry in the franchise, and Soderbergh avoids having Mike play the same kind of cipher for the delusions of the ruling class that Sasha Grey played in 2008’s The Girlfriend Experience. Culturally, too, Last Dance is a world away from the pre-FOSTA-SESTA age of XXL. This is the first Magic Mike to use the term “sex work,” the first Magic Mike to be released in a world without, the first Magic Mike to debut after a federally recognized stripper union has gained increasing traction. This is a movie that takes place in London because Magic Mike Live has been a mainstay of the UK Hippodrome Casino since 2018.

At the same time, Last Dance evinces little interest in what our drastically changed sex industry means for strippers like Mike. Tatum can market himself as a figurehead for a mainstream, sex-work-adjacent live show in part because he is now, primarily, a movie star in the public consciousness. The character of Mike, on the other hand, is a nobody in a foreign country, disconnected from his own community. Yet sex workers are everywhere, and to leave unexamined how a wide range of people are functioning in a post-COVID recession feels like a negation of the series’ preoccupations and strengths. The series’ defining pleasure—getting to see the members of a marginalized community rendered as full human beings, ingenuously building lives of both survival and self-fulfillment in a world that would rather they disappear—is crushingly absent.

Soderbergh and series screenwriter Reid Carolin treat the depiction of community as if it would undermine one of the main focuses of the new film: how civilians subjugate and fetishize the sex workers around them, even subconsciously. Max is terrified of any proximity to stripping despite wanting to exploit to what Mike can offer her. She refuses to hire actual strippers for the show, instead collecting an internationally acclaimed group of young professional dancers. She continues to deny that she has hired Mike, in part, as an escort, despite their first meeting ending in sex. Many viewers have already noted that this entry is far less sexy than the previous two films. This appears to be an intentional decision: if Magic Mike XXL was a pre-Code-esque Gold Diggers of 2015, this is closer to a Breen-era melodrama. In focusing so much on this coy game of sexual repression, the film gives up countless opportunities to explore fantasy in the face of systemic economic inhibition.

Though essentially a narrative of unfulfilled desire, Last Dance still attempts to be a crowd-pleasing Soderbergh programmer. As a result of this contradictory impulse, it’s often dull: many of the putting-on-the-ritz montages feel anonymous, completely devoid of the ambient dialogue and backstage echoes that defined the texture of the previous two films. In one oddly lifeless set piece, a professional dancer flown in from Italy performs a lap dance for Max during rehearsal. The scene is meant to highlight the technical skill a classically trained dancer can bring to stripping, but the camera swings around from a distance, unable to meaningfully enhance the choreography.

A subsequent scene in which Mike watches one of his crew perform a lap dance for the show’s heroine is far more assured. “In terms of dancing, you can’t get better than that,” Mike says, giving notes afterward. “But you have to really connect with the performer.” Then, as an example, he performs a technically identical dance, with the exact same shot composition. Still, the dance is transformed, more dynamic, more present, and those same camera movements, which before felt aimless, slot neatly into place, matching the beats of Mike’s performance.

Much was made pre-release of the finale, a 30-minute dance sequence. In an equally audacious move, however, the preceding 20 minutes focus almost exclusively on the details of zoning and historical preservation laws. In seemingly every other scene of this passage, a huffy Brit storms into the theater with a new stipulation about the alterations being made to the landmark institution. What keeps these amusing roadblocks from ever amounting to a more substantial diversion is that these hiccups are always about Max’s divorce, or the sanctity of the theater, or some mundane labor clause. Such obstacles are never linked directly to the idea of putting on a stripper show in a theater that used to host a period drama.

The finale of Magic Mike XXL suggested a world in which male intimacy and self-expression were as crucial for sexual liberation as female pleasure and empowerment. The production at the end of Magic Mike’s Last Dance, on the other hand, plays into the idea that Mike has been relegated to a mute muse for Max’s own reconnection with herself, Mike’s own artistry and motivations be damned. During a fight between the two leads, under the theater’s rainy awning, Max bemoans to Mike, “You have no show.” “But you’re so good at this,” he retorts, pleading. The climax is doused in a rainy stage, footage from the opening lap dance intercut with Max and Mike’s more openly ecstatic final performance. This is all for Max, and the audience is left in the dark as to what Mike gets out of it.

Early on, the film proposes that the only economically viable form of artistic expression these days is to serve the neuroses of those with the money, that Mike got the job not for his skill but because Max’s fantasy was to thrust Mike into a narrative of self-expression which she was too controlling and lacking in self-awareness to let play out fully. This is as much a rejection of MMXXL’s radical optimism as that film was a rejection of the first one’s transactional gloom. Such pessimism is at least a coherent vision for the character across the trilogy, whatever heightened absurdities have been engineered along the way. Unfortunately, Magic Mike’s Last Dance chickens out by the end, refuses to commit to an ironic comedown. In the last scene, Mike says that he loves Max, that he wants to stay with her, that he doesn’t care about the money. This kind of broad pivot to out-and-out romanticism, as opposed to a mutually beneficial business venture bolstered by physical chemistry, rings false—an attempt to retroactively validate the sincerity of a dynamic that was no less authentic when it foregrounded each lover’s more selfish use for the other.