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Actually, Magic Mike’s Last Dance Is About the Awfulness of Urban Zoning Regulations

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Sure, Magic Mike’s Last Dance is a movie about muscly male dancers, about fantasies of female empowerment, about cover model–ready guys taking off their shirts and grinding, consensually, with tittering, repressed, mostly middle-aged women who, the movie seems to say, should treat the movie’s gleaming hunks of beefcake as a sort of healing salve.

But would you believe it’s also about…a stripper fighting the menace of politically controlled historical preservation and zoning regulations?

I am not kidding.

Like its predecessors, Magic Mike, and Magic Mike XXL, Magic Mike’s Last Dance follows Channing Tatum’s Mike Lane, the ripped-and-affable stripper who dreams of nothing but running his own business, a custom furniture shop in south Florida.

As the movie begins, however, his business is in shambles thanks to COVID-19, and he’s returned to gig work as a bartender for catered events. At one such gig, he meets Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), a middle-aged woman of considerable means whose wealth stems primarily from her husband’s family. Mendoza’s husband, however, has recently cheated on her with a younger woman. Thanks to a prenup, divorce would leave her broke, so she seeks other means of revenge: Specifically, after a spectacular private lapdance from Mike, she recruits him to direct a male stripper revue at a storied-but-stodgy old playhouse in London—a playhouse her wealthy, stuck-up husband cares about quite a bit but cannot legally control himself.

In short, it’s a female-centric version of the “instead of going to therapy” meme: Women will literally hire a random Florida stripper to stage a male revue at a historic playhouse in order to avoid therapy.

As plot premises go, it’s thin and more than a little bit ridiculous, but it sets up a mid-movie conflict involving London’s famously fussy, famously politicized restrictions on building modification. For Mike’s show to work, it turns out, the playhouse must be modified, with a new, extended stage being built out from the old structure.

And those modifications, it turns out, trigger a legal inquiry from the local historical review board, which, viewers are meant to understand, is acting under the impetus of Mendoza’s husband, who is using his political connections to try to shut down the show.

In some ways it’s a small point, although it results in one of the movie’s goofiest scenes, in which the show’s dancers stage a private show for the bureaucrat in charge of approving commercial modifications: As it turns out, she’s a repressed, middle-aged lady too, and she’s won over by their moves. One of the movie’s funniest gags is a direct cut from the peak of city-bus dance to the stamp of approval on the building modification paperwork.

But the building code issues don’t stop there: Even after the initial approval, it turns out there are still problems. The bureaucrat returns to the stage with a stack of paperwork: Apparently, the new stage is still three-quarters of an inch too high. She’s been contacted by a member of Parliament—obviously at the behest of the jilted husband. What can she do? The movie’s answer amounts to: Dance, enjoy yourself, release yourself from the repression of everyday life, and don’t worry about it.

This is probably good life advice. But as a practical solution to the problem of overbearing urban zoning and construction regulations, it leaves something to be desired.

Yet as political analysis, it’s surprisingly on point: Zoning and historic preservation rules are not just bureaucratic nuisances—they are often tools used by politically powerful irritants to shut down projects over which they have no direct authority, but dislike for personal reasons. In the movie as in the real world, urban zoning and historic preservation rules are weapons employed by local sourpusses to stop other people from doing interesting, innovative, and unusual activities, whether for fun, profit, or both. You can’t build that is just another way of saying you can’t do that.

As movies go, Magic Mike’s Last Dance is absurd, and none of the major story beats hold up to scrutiny. It’s also surprisingly enjoyable, in large part because of how sharply observed it is. The franchise is often understood as a sort of broad, campy, female empowerment fantasy, and it certainly engages with that perception: If you want to hoot and holler at modern-day Chippendales, this film will service that impulse. But there’s more going on, at least at the margins. Director Steven Soderbergh, who also directed the first installment, keeps the proceedings grounded and lived-in: It’s not realistic, exactly, but as with the first film, which was set against the economic backdrop of weird, working-class Tampa, Florida, it often feels as if it is populated by something like real, ordinary people, who have to deal with real, ordinary problems, like zoning and historical review boards.

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