Producers: Nick Wechsler, Gregory Jacobs, Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin and Peter Kiernan  Director: Steven Soderbergh   Screenplay: Reid Carolin   Cast: Channing Tatum, Salma Hayek Pinault, Ayub Khan-Din, Jemelia George, Juliette Motamed, Kylie Shea, Alan Cox, Vicki Pepperdine, Gavin Spokes, Ethan Lawrence, Suzanne Bertish, Caitlin Gerard, Christopher Bencomo, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash and Joe Manganiello   Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: C-

Mike Lane’s magic has run out.  Over the course of a decade Channing Tatum has parlayed his experience as an exotic dancer during his youth into a mini-franchise encompassing two successful movies, a Vegas-style stage show and a reality competition TV series, but in “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” the creative juices seem to have run dry for writer Reid Carolin, who was with the series from the start, and director Steven Soderbergh, who helmed the first picture but passed the baton to Gregory Jacobs on the second (which he nonetheless shot and edited under his regular pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard) and here reclaims all three roles.  The picture is an oddly ramshackle affair, a romantic dramedy that melds a gender-switch “Pretty Woman” with an old-fashioned “let’s put on a show” scenario while purporting to deliver muddled messages about female empowerment and the rocky road to true love.  It manages to be at once unduly serious and utterly silly.

Mike (Tatum) is at low ebb, his custom furniture business having collapsed and feeling obligated to pay back his old dance buddies the money they lent him, though as we learn in a zoom conversation that’s the sole time, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash and Joe Manganiello actually appear, they’re happy to wipe the slate clean.  He’s working as a bartender at a charity function where, after being recognized by an erstwhile client (Caitlin Gerard), he’s invited by the affair’s rich hostess Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault) to cheer her up with a private dance; she’s having marital troubles with her rich English hubby Roger (Alan Cox).  Mike declines, saying he doesn’t dance anymore, but when she offers him six grand, he accepts.

So we’re treated to another display of Tatum’s talents, which remain formidable—so much that despite an agreement that actual sex will not be involved, they wind up in bed together.  (We don’t see their intimacy, only the chaste morning after snuggle.)  She’s so impressed by his dexterity that she offers him sixty grand for a month’s work back in London, staging a show in a posh London theatre to replace a stilted drama scheduled there.  His far livelier production will serve to irritate her unfaithful spouse and his mother, and once again no intimacy between them will be involved though she provides him with a room in the house she shares with her precocious, cynical teen daughter Zadie (Jemelia George), who’s constantly at a laptop keyboard typing a novel while also serving as an occasional narrator for the movie, spinning out pretentious prose.  Another constant presence is Victor (Ayub Khan-Din), an ever-attentive but jaded butler who seems like a descendant of the sort of know-it-all servant John Gielgud played in “Arthur.”

Some of the bits here must be intended as parodies of movie cliché—like the montage of chintzy bric-a-brac sold in stores catering to tourists in London.  But the script itself is cliché, not necessarily designed as parody, as Max dresses up Mike in the best clothes the city’s tailors can provide and takes him to the theatre, where she summarily introduces him as the new artistic director to replace stuffy Matthew (Gavin Spokes).  Among the major holdovers from the old regime are stage manager Woody (Ethan Lawrence) and lead actress Hannah (Juliette Motamed), though in time she’ll become the new show’s narrator.

From this point the movie devolves into a curiously disjointed account of Mike and Max recruiting and auditioning the handsome, talented studs who will make up the show’s ensemble and Mike’s creating the various numbers for them—though we’re not given much evidence of the creative impulses that go into the process, apart from Mike’s injunction that a man must emphasize “persuasion” in his approach to a woman as a kind of submission to her, inviting her to accept his offer rather than imposing himself on her—a not-so-subtle message for any guys dragged to “Last Dance” by their dates.  There’s an obligatory roadblock to the opening of the show thrown up by bureaucrats in league with Roger—it has to do with remodeling the stage—which necessitates changing the mind of spinsterish town official Edna Eaglebauer (Vicki Pepperdine) with an impromptu dance on a bus, involving a Matthew Bourne-ish take on “Swan Lake.”

That provides another opportunity for the ensemble to strut their stuff, which the dancers do with impressive acrobatic agility throughout, even if the choreography by Alison Faulk and Luke Broadlick is, apart from the bits accorded to Tatum solo, frankly more ordinary Broadway than Magic Mike-ish.  Naturally everything culminates in the show itself, an elaborate succession of numbers punctuated by bursts of pompous explanation by Motamed and concluding in a rain-drenched dance that Mike does with a ballerina (Kylie Shea) looking suspiciously like Max that’s intended as his declaration of love for her—even though the narrative has given little attention to the growing attraction between them.

Naturally this finale is accompanied by raucous screams and cheers from the invited guests, which here is the virtual equivalent of a sitcom laugh-track, instructing us as to how we should respond too.  It’s no more effective in this case than the guffaws are on the tube.  Nor does the inevitable clinch at the end really encapsulate the mantra Max enunciates and the story supposedly proves—than women should get whatever they want, whenever they want (unless, of course, what any woman wants is a dripping Channing Tatum). 

The central problem is that Carolin’s wish-fulfillment scenario grinds along in far too familiar a groove this time around.  Soderbergh tries to compensate with his characteristically loose, fluid approach, but here it comes along as simply lackluster; even his editing, usually so expertly contrived, is lumpy.  While Tatum remains a charismatic presence who still has all the right moves in the dancing and a likable throwaway style elsewhere, Hayek Pinault is strident throughout.  And while the ensemble dancers are all fine, it’s hard to appreciate George’s snippiness, Khan-Din’s pursed-lip intensity or Motamed’s exaggeration overmuch, though Pepperdine will likely be a crowd-pleaser.  On the other hand, Soderbergh’s camerawork is dexterous, if not always visually attractive, and the production design (Pat Campbell) and costumes (Christopher Peterson) are reasonably attractive.                  

There will be a built-in audience out there for this concluding installment in the Magic Mike saga, but even long-time fans will probably be disappointed by it.  In only one way does it break any new ground.  Reversing today’s usual pattern, it was originally planned for streaming on HBO Max, then switched to a theatrical release.  Whether the change was warranted is, however, debatable.