In a way, Magic Mike’s Last Dance is an example of what I call “sketchbook cinema.” This type of movie has a solid idea for a story, a rough idea of its characters, but is ultimately carried by the actors and the craftsmanship of filmmaking. Unfortunately, sketchbook cinema can quickly fall apart if the filmmaking isn’t spot on. Luckily, we are in possibly the most reliable hands working today, Steven Soderbergh.
Last Dance is a movie so deftly crafted that if you don’t like filmmaking, you will likely be bored. But if you are the type of person who enjoys watching with bated breath wondering how Soderbergh will cut to the next scene, then Last Dance will leave you salivating. It left me that way, and not just because Salma Hayek Pinault and Channing Tatum’s chemistry is hot enough to melt the digital processing chip in the projector, though it helps.
It also helps that Soderbergh’s Last Dance has a measured tone. The movie is never over the top, saving its grand visual explosions for the dance numbers and gyrating male bodies. In addition, Soderbergh and Carolin’s script uses low lighting to create a warm sense of simmering passion, saving the brightly lit incandescent moments for the stage.
By doing this, Last Dance feels like a movie left on simmer with moments of boiling over. This a sly move on Soderbergh’s part. It keeps Last Dance from being a movie of nothing but climaxes and instead gives it a rhythm like that of a dance, allowing us in the audience to catch our breath before the next dip.
Part of the reason sex has been disappearing from our silver screens is that finding actors who have “that kind of” chemistry takes work, and frankly, the more money a film has, the less work studios want to finance. So, in typical Soderbergh fashion, he has undertaken almost all of the work himself, using assumed names.
Shot, edited, and directed by Soderbergh, with a script by Reid Carolin, Last Dance is a romantic fantasy about a male stripper being whisked off his feet by a lonely wealthy socialite who wants all women to feel as desired as the stripper /bartender made her feel one steamy night in Miami. It’s a simple film that knows what it wants to do and does it with such aplomb and verve that it left me, quite literally, breathless at times.
Carolin’s script delivers the necessary bits and bobs. We have Hayek Pinault as the lonely Maxandra Mendoza, drifting in a sea of midlife uncertainty in the midst of a divorce from her welahty businessman, soon to be ex-husband Roger (Alan Cox). The serendipitous meeting of Tatum’s Mike, working as the bartender after his furniture store went under because of the pandemic. Both characters satisfy the other’s yearning for something more in an increasingly harsh and bitter world.
It’s the yearning that Soderbergh does such a complete job of capturing. This is the other thing often forgotten when it comes to sex in movies; it’s not the nudity so much as the sense of longing and desire. Last Dance is an erotic and sensual movie without an ounce of nudity. But I defy anyone to watch that first dance scene between Hayek Pinault and Tatum and not feel their blood pumping.
The dance Mike performs for Max at the beginning alone is a perfect example of how people often confuse the male gaze with any gaze at all. The movement of bodies to a rhythm mixed with the feeling as if we, the audience, are peering into a private moment leaves the palms more than a little sweaty.
That Soderbergh can call back to this moment during the heightened finale as Mike dances with the show’s surrogate Max, Kylie Shea, a rain-soaked, erotically charged interpretive ballet representing Max’s and Mike’s first night together, to heighten the intimacy and the emotional crescendo of the movie, is a testament not only to his craft but a reminder of how sloppily crafted so many films are put together nowadays.
The ballet scene is also, on a different level, a technical achievement. From a practical standpoint, it is a dance number that leaves one not just feeling exhilarated but impressed that no one was hurt during the production. Tatum and Shea glide around on the wet stage, with Tatum wearing kneepads, and Shea, a trained ballerina, with meticulous precision. Soderbergh’s lighting makes their skin glisten as he attempts to and, very nearly succeeds-to, compose something as visually iconic as Gene Kelly dancing with an umbrella in Singin’ In The Rain.
Soderberg’s camera work and editing lift Last Dance to a level of gasping delight; at points, his decisions are inspired, as well as what he chooses to show us and what not to show. Last Dance in another director’s hands would lack vibrancy and the sensuality of fantasy, which is also unafraid of dealing with the realities of our world. Instead, Soderbergh dances on the line of both being just a movie and keeping just enough verisimilitude not to ruin the mood.
For example, when Mike is talking to his friends on zoom. Each zoom window is of a different quality, with some glitching and others frozen. Or when Max and Mike lie in bed and watch a dancer on Max’s phone, the image is crisp and clear because we live in an age where images on our phones are often better looking than images on our laptops.
Last Dance is clean and effective filmmaking with a pulsating heart that refuses to conform to what we think it should be. Each Magic Mike installment is its own thing with an individual style and vibes. It has a big sappy heart and a droll sense of humor.
Even the framing of Last Dance makes it feel like its own movie. Zadie (Jemilia George), Max’s daughter, narrates the film as if it’s one of her stories that she’s written. Almost as if Zadie herself is trying to understand what draws her mother and this strange American from Miami together. This also explains why Last Dance seems more interested in Max than Mike because her daughter struggles to understand her mother and why she is the way she is.
One scene has the mother and daughter arguing in French. Mike sits there, ignored, before finally muttering, “Excuse my French but you’re both being rude as f*ck.”
Carolin’s script lightly plays with economic anxieties and how Mike is out of his depth, mixing awkward moments with Zadie with moments like Max taking him shopping and having him scoff at the prices. Max’s butler Victor (Ayub Khan Din), gives Mike a fair bit of gruff, but only because he is rightly suspicious of Mike’s intentions. That is reasonable, considering Mike is unsure of Max’s intentions, not to mention, as we learn when it comes to loyalties, he’s in Max’s corner.
But more than anything, it’s the way Tatum and Soderbergh step back and let Hayek Pinault take the lead. Hayek Pinault’s commanding presence demands, not asks, that all eyes be on her. Soderbergh, to his credit, allows Max to dress in stylish outlandish ways befitting her wealth. At one point, Tatum’s Mike whistles and says, “That looks like it cost a lot of money.” “You have no idea.”
Max is a confident woman riddled with self-doubt. Her family refers to her as the “Queen of First Acts.” She isn’t flighty, but like many, she’s afraid of what might happen if she fails or succeeds. Soderbergh isn’t afraid to be cheeky or allow his characters to be. Such as when Max tells Mike, “This show is not about getting dick, only.” Hayek Pinault’s delivery of that line is subtle but hilarious and rooted in her character.
Of course, Mike and Max will end up together. It’s never in doubt. But it is doubtful whether they put on the show because that’s the driving factor. Not just creating a show but getting it over the hump and produced. But underneath it, all is the simmering uncertainty of whether or not Max will lose it all or even risk it all, and what “all” means to her.
Yes, Magic Mike’s Last Dance is the typical Steven Soderbergh look at the process of a thing. However, it is also about chasing the dragon of the rush of inspiration, the conception of an idea. At its core, Soderbergh is trying to show what the creative process is like in capturing the feeling when inspiration strikes and how it becomes something more fleshed out for everyone to enjoy.
Soderbergh mirrors the feeling of longing with that of putting on a show or making a movie. Because to filmmakers, sex and filmmaking are often the same. And Soderbergh isn’t ashamed to admit it.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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