“What does a woman want?” Sigmund Freud famously confessed that he had spent most of his career flummoxed by that question. In the 21st century it seems that the director Steven Soderbergh, the screenwriter Reid Carolin and the heterodox psychoanalytic theorist Channing Tatum have come up with an answer that Freud would never have dreamed of: Magic Mike.
In “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” the final chapter in a trilogy about lust, ambition and abdominal fitness in the modern age, Mike is focused on the desires of one woman in particular, a wealthy Londoner named Maxandra Mendoza. But the sources of Mike’s appeal — a heart as big as his trapezius, resolve as firm as his glutes, a character as sturdy as his quadriceps — haven’t changed.
More than a decade has passed since the first movie, “Magic Mike” (2012), which was followed by “Magic Mike XXL” (directed by Gregory Jacobs) in 2015. Mike Lane, middle-aging gracefully, still resides in South Florida, but he isn’t quite where he had dreamed of being in life. A narrator (who will turn out to be an important character) informs us that Mike has lost his beloved furniture business. He also seems to have hung up his backless chaps and his fake police uniform and traded in stripping for bartending at fancy charity events.
At one of these, he meets Maxandra — she goes by Max, and is played with regal insouciance by Salma Hayek Pinault — who discovers his background in expressive dance and hires him for a private performance. They settle on a price and establish boundaries that are promptly transgressed. She says she’s not hiring him for sex, and when they have sex anyway he declines payment. The ethical and other ambiguities raised by this encounter are potentially interesting, but the movie mostly has other matters on its mind.
Each of the “Magic Mike” films has explored the nexus of sex, art and money from a different angle. “Magic Mike” was about how, in a precarious labor market, a gig worker might wrest dignity and autonomy from conditions rife with exploitation. “XXL” emphasized the extravagant pleasure of selling oneself as a high-end commodity and the aesthetic fulfillment of satisfying a customer. “Last Dance” is about the relationship between artist and patron, and also about something that can’t be reduced to libidinal or economic transactions.
In other words, it’s a love story. Which makes things a little awkward, for Max and Mike and for the movie itself. Mike’s vocation as a stripper had been to embody a male object of female fantasy — or, given Tatum, Carolin and Soderbergh’s joint authorship, a male idea of what women long for. He and his fellow dancers perfected a choreography of swagger and surrender, an enactment of conquest that encoded submission as the highest form of gallantry.
In “Last Dance,” the dance sequences that don’t involve Mike uphold that tradition, even as, offstage, Mike evolves into a different kind of fantasy object. He isn’t just supposed to be a camped-up embodiment of the perfect man, but the real thing.
After jetting over to London, where Mike is installed in a guest room, he and Max embark on a tricky creative collaboration. Max’s faithless husband (a briefly encountered Alan Cox) owns a historic theater, and Max hires Mike to direct a sexed-up version of a stodgy costume drama, turning it into a rousing spectacle of masculine hotness and feminist empowerment. Which means hiring a lot of strippers.
Those dudes do their jobs competently, though London may not be the first city that comes to mind when you think of rippling, glistening hunks of well-muscled man meat. And it’s only when Tatum himself takes the stage, to splash and writhe with Kylie Shea, that the heat and humidity rise to appropriately Floridian levels.
Like its predecessors, “Last Dance” never forgets that it’s a musical at heart. Soderbergh, also serving as cinematographer and editor (under his customary pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard), keeps our eye on the bodies in motion. The dance numbers, choreographed by Alison Faulk and Luke Broadlick, feel a bit tame this time around, but the movie still pays ample respect to the terpsichorean craft practiced by Tatum and the hard-working members of Mike’s ensemble.
As a romance, though, it demonstrates flat feet and balky rhythm. There are a handful of comic secondary characters, vaguely embodying familiar varieties of Britishness — a repressed city bureaucrat (Vicki Pepperdine); a grouchy manservant (Ayub Khan Din); a sharp-tongued adolescent (the excellent Jemelia George) — but Max and Mike inhabit a thinly imagined, flatly rendered world.
Hayek Pinault and Tatum have a tantalizing chemistry, but the script doesn’t always help them activate it. All of the drama comes from Max, whose whims and mood swings sometimes complement and sometimes clash with Mike’s steady good humor. His easy, endless charm may, finally, get in the way. This man is so affable, so grounded, so gentlemanly that he achieves a kind of blank passivity. His chivalry begins to feel like a way of refusing emotional connection, a suit of armor that he neglected to take off when he shed his other costumes.
What does Mike want? It’s probably the wrong question. And maybe the answer is exactly what a woman doesn’t want to know.
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