Magic Mikes Last Dance Is About the Price of Pleasure, often female and for women Magic Mike's Last Dance

Although its provenance is hard to define, there is an old argument that everything is about sex, except sex; sex is about power. Magic Mike’s Last Dance expands that argument to suggest that power is often about money.

The basic plot of Magic Mike’s Last Dance is straightforward. Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) is a retired exotic dancer who has a chance encounter with a wealthy divorcee, Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek). Inspired by her evening with Mike, Max latches on to the idea of creating an exotic stage show dedicated to sharing that experience with the world. She takes Mike with her to London, and the pair inevitably navigate their complicated relationship.

It’s an archetypal romance. Mike is a working-class guy from Miami thrown into the world of British theater, while Max navigates her estrangement from her cheating husband Roger (Alan Cox) and her relationship with her daughter Zadie (Jemelia George). They are people from two very different worlds, with two very different outlooks on life, who inevitably share a meaningful connection that enriches both of them. There are few surprises here.

As with both Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL, this is a movie about depicting female pleasure on screen. The Magic Mike franchise presents the male body for the consumption of a presumed female audience. This is most obvious in Magic Mike XXL, which presents its protagonists as wandering heroes on a road trip using their unique gifts to bring smiles to women across America. It’s a franchise that is “subversive and forward-thinking about women’s sexuality.”

Magic Mike’s Last Dance is conscious of this feminist subtext. Mike and Max specifically structure their stage show as a subversion of the play that it will replace in the theater that Max got as part of her divorce settlement. In that show, the female lead is asked to choose between marrying for money or marrying for love. Mike and Max reject that binary, daring to imagine a world where a woman can have “whatever she wants whenever she wants.”

As with the original Magic Mike, what is so interesting about Magic Mike’s Last Dance is how writer Reid Carolin and director Steven Soderbergh foreground the role of money within this framework. After all, there is an unspoken assumption in many of these stories: A woman can have whatever she wants, as long as she is willing to pay for it. Money is something that is often uncritically interwoven with Hollywood’s depictions of romance.

Director Nancy Meyers has been criticized for “the unexamined wealth” of her protagonists. Meyers argues that these criticisms miss the point. “I think if someone has a problem or somebody’s heart is broken, it doesn’t matter what’s in the bank,” she contends. “I guess I’m a pretty big fan of screwball comedies from the ’30s, and they were about very wealthy people.” Of course, it’s worth noting that those screwball comedies, like It Happened One Night, took place during the Great Depression.

In many of these classic romantic comedies, it is the woman who enjoys a higher social status than her male counterpart: Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) in It Happened One Night, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) in The Philadelphia Story, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) in My Man Godfrey. This even carries over to many period romances, as with Rose (Kate Winslet) in Titanic, suggesting that the only way a woman could have enough agency to follow her own desires in those contexts would be to have wealth.

The unspoken assumption here is that these romantic fantasies are a luxury for those who have enough financial security that they don’t need to worry about more material concerns. There is perhaps a reason why the romantic comedy enjoyed something of a boom during the 1990s, an era of relative economic prosperity. These often extravagant fantasies about rich and comfortable people navigating existential emotional crises perhaps made more sense in a time of financial stability.

The first and third Magic Mike movies foreground this theme. (The second, Magic Mike XXL, was directed by Gregory Jacobs rather than Steven Soderbergh, and it is very much its own animal.) Both Magic Mike and Magic Mike’s Last Dance foreground the idea of Mike Lane as a service worker. Crucially, Mike doesn’t want to be a dancer, but he has to be a dancer to pay the bills to allow him to pursue his own interests. Mike’s dancing is a financial calculation.

To be clear, Mike isn’t heartless. Part of what makes Mike such a good dancer is the emotional connection that he makes with his clients. However, it is inherently transactional. When Mike is reintroduced at the start of Magic Mike’s Last Dance, his carpentry business has collapsed as a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic and he is working as a barman at one of Max’s fundraisers. His first line to her establishes the nature of their dynamic, “Did you get what you needed?”

Most of the conversations between Mike and Max are negotiations that are often explicitly financial. In their first proper scene together, she buys a lap dance. He insists that he is retired. She asks how much he would charge for the privilege of his “last dance.” He plucks the number $60,000 out of the air. She makes a counter offer of $6,000. It’s very efficient. Mike then engages in a quick survey of his surroundings, testing the strength of various supports and arranging props, preparing the show.

The lap dance turns into something more physical. The following morning, Max concedes that the experience was worth $60,000, but Mike declines to take her money. She responds by offering him that $60,000 to join her in London for four weeks. On the plane ride, Mike summarizes their relationship, “You’ve purchased me for a month.” Mike is open to the possibility that this is paid sex work, although Max establishes boundaries between them.

Magic Mikes Last Dance Is About the Price of Pleasure, often female and for women Magic Mike's Last Dance

In the context of Magic Mike’s Last Dance as a film about women’s pleasure, it’s notable that Max’s closest friends are effectively employees. Beyond Mike, Max’s closest confidant is her butler, Victor (Ayub Khan Din). Victor speaks freely and candidly and seems to genuinely care about Max. As Mike points out, he could have chosen to work for her ex-husband, Roger. However, his relationship to Max is still defined by Max’s access to Roger’s wealth.

Steven Soderbergh is a prolific filmmaker, and the breadth of his filmography can make it daunting to try to identify recurring themes and preoccupations. Soderbergh has made all kinds of films in all kinds of genres, working at an impressively brisk pace. Any attempt to distill his work down to a single interest (or even a set of interests) will inevitably be reductive. Still, the Magic Mike films exist at the intersection of two themes that Soderbergh has returned to repeatedly in his body of work.

Soderbergh’s films frequently explore sex and sexuality. However, it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that Soderbergh is fascinated by the context around sex and sexuality as much as the act or desire itself. His first feature was Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a defining moment for American independent cinema that Roger Ebert summed up as a movie about how “conversation is… better than sex.” These ideas simmer through Soderbergh’s other work, including movies like Full Frontal.

In recent years, Soderbergh has engaged with the workings of late capitalism. Movies like Traffic and Contagion are about how interconnected the world is in the era of globalization. The Laundromat was a docu-drama about the Panama Papers scandal. He also made Che, a two-part epic biopic about the legendary communist revolutionary. Part of what is really interesting about this stage of Soderbergh’s career is how this interest comes to intersect with a variety of different genre exercises.

Magic Mikes Last Dance Is About the Price of Pleasure, often female and for women Magic Mike's Last Dance

High Flying Bird is a basketball movie that largely takes place in boardrooms and over lunch meetings. No Sudden Move is a caper movie about the efforts of car manufacturers to suppress the catalytic converter. Side Effects is a delightfully trashy psycho-sexual thriller about evil pharmaceutical companies. Unsane is an extremely heightened psychological thriller that begins as a movie about stalking and then evolves into a commentary on for-profit institutionalization.

In many of these movies, Soderbergh explores the commodification of human beings, how industries treat them as resources, subjects, or units. It makes sense that Soderbergh would tie this fascination with commodification into his preoccupation with relationships. Magic Mike isn’t even Soderbergh’s first movie about this. The Girlfriend Experience follows a high-end sex worker (Sasha Grey) who sells emotional intimacy as much as sex and who finds her job security threatened by the recession.

Magic Mike and The Girlfriend Experience are twinned works within Soderbergh’s filmography, stories about how even intimacy is commodified, packaged, and sold in the modern capitalist landscape. This is evidently fertile ground to explore. Much like Magic Mike produced two sequels, The Girlfriend Experience launched its own serialized anthology show that lasted three seasons. Everything is for sale, even love.

Magic Mikes Last Dance Is About the Price of Pleasure, often female and for women Magic Mike's Last Dance

Magic Mike’s Last Dance is narrated in voiceover by Max’s daughter, Zadie. She offers a history of dancing as a social phenomenon, pointing out its social utility during early evolution. However, as she points out, it only became something to be truly enjoyed when capitalism created a leisured class. It’s impossible to divorce this sort of hedonism from wealth. There is a cynicism in this. For all that Mike and Max dream of a show where women can enjoy gratification without cost, it is a fantasy. The movie teases that it may be one as well.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance returns repeatedly to the image of “the unicorn,” an imaginary beast that is summoned to interrupt the play’s dreary plot about choosing to marry for love or for money. Over the course of the film, Max learns that she won’t get to keep anything she took from Roger. She has to choose. In the film’s closing moments, as the curtain closes on their one-night-only spectacular, she confesses to Mike, “I’m broke!” He jokes about walking away, but ultimately he stays with her. Against all odds, love conquers all.

It’s a sweet moment, but a barbed one. Magic Mike’s Last Dance doesn’t close on that embrace. Instead, Soderbergh’s camera pans downward, to the floor. The movie’s final shot is of one of the fake pink notes that Mike distributed to the theater’s patrons, with a unicorn printed on it. Et in Arcadia capitalismus. Even in this romantic fantasy, pleasure has a price.

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