Overstuffed, shaggy, and only featuring a handful of chuckles, the aging adult dancer comedy Back on the Strip adds little to the lineage of Magic Mikes, Full Montys, and Chocolate Cities that came before it. Threadbare on a production level (with an odd and desperate amount of product placement throughout) and wholly reliant on a cast that’s capable of turning straw into gold, Back on the Strip never goes hard enough to succeed at being a raucous piece of entertainment. It’s a movie that seems destined to play in heavy rotation on afternoon basic cable TV or streaming for eternity in the depths of Tubi.
Several years after being embarrassed on stage at a high school talent show in front of his lifelong crush, Robin (Raigan Harris), the aptly named Merlin (Spence Moore II) has found his budding career as a magician stalled out. His mother (Tiffany Haddish) both sees his potential and wants him out of the house, so she books him a one way ticket from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where he can more readily land a gig as a stage entertainer. Things don’t go so well for Robin out of the gate, but thankfully for him, he just so happens to be well endowed, an asset that catches the eye of Luther (Wesley Snipes), a faded male dreamboat who used to head up a successful band of strippers known as the Chocolate Chips. Luther takes Merlin under his wing, and together they work to bring the band back together.
There are a lot of plot lines in Back on the Strip competing for attention, probably more than advisable when one considers this material is so overstretched that director and co-writer Chris Spencer’s first feature reaches a logical conclusion before it even passes the halfway point of its nearly two hour long running time. There’s the business of Merlin trying to win Robin back from her jerky influencer fiancee (Ryan Alexander Holmes). There’s everything involving Merlin and Luther trying to put on a show that can save the run down hotel they’re living at, run by the Chips’ pot smoking former manager (Colleen Camp).
Then, once Luther and Merlin are able to locate the members of the dance team and bring them back into the fold, all of them get to have their own plots. Desmond (Faizon Love), formerly known as Da Body, has become an auto mechanic and really let himself go physically. Star dancer Amos (J.B. Smoove) has become a preacher with an unsatisfied wife (Caryn Ward), whom Desmond just so happened to have a thing for, causing lifelong tension between the two. Former playboy Tyriq (Bill Bellamy) has settled down as the stay-at-home father of four with an MMA fighter wife. Xander (Gary Owen), who used to dance under a luchador mask, is a doctor who turns out to be a white guy. Tyriq and Xander constantly bicker over the nature of white privilege. Then, there’s another twist development (albeit a predictable one) coming in just as things look to be wrapping up, adding even more plotting to something that can barely sustain all the baggage it has already taken on.
Back on the Strip doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone, and while some of this stuff works in fits and starts – particularly the romantic rivalry between Desmond and Amos – most of it struggles to rise above everything else going on. There are long passages of Back on the Strip where it’s easy to forget that the first thirty minutes or so are spent setting up Merlin as the protagonist, with the young man’s journey essentially put on pause until the film remembers to get back around to the real point. It’s a work desperately in need of some judicious editing.
There’s a noteworthy amount of ambition on display in Back on the Strip, even if a lot of the jokes and direction falls flat (with Haddish unnecessarily adding awkward narration throughout, probably in a bid to add a few more zingers to struggling material). Spencer has a long list of credits to his name in the industry, and Back on the Strip feels like a project where someone called in a lot of favours to get the film off the ground. In terms of production value, there’s very little, and it’s clear that a lot of the budget went towards securing the talent and music rights for the soundtrack, and not nearly as much to making this pop off the screen like the visual extravaganza people tend to expect from this kind of escapist entertainment.
But to Spencer’s credit, he seems keenly aware of exactly where the budget for Back on the Strip went, and it could account for why the film is so overstuffed with side stories. If nothing else, Back on the Strip tries its best to make sure that showing up in the film is worth everyone’s investment of time. There aren’t any bad performances to be found among the main cast, with Smoove, Love, and Camp emerging as major standouts who make the absolute most of their screen time. In turn, the cast does everything in their power to make Back on the Strip rise above its limitations. It’s ultimately a losing battle, but none of that is their fault, and Spencer’s attempt to create something multidimensional is admirable, even if the results fall short.
If Back on the Strip picked a more dedicated comedic lane instead of swerving all over the highway, maybe the results would be different. It wouldn’t be as packed with recognizable faces (including Kevin Hart popping by for a much publicized cameo), but there would’ve been more room to make the arc of this “rise to stardom” yarn feel a bit more prominent. Although the comedic and dramatic contrivances keep getting piled on as heavily as possible, Back on the Strip somehow finds ways to make each set piece less impressive than the one before it down the stretch, constantly passing by more logical and satisfying endings because the film is doing too much with too little. This is a project that was a few drafts and editorial passes away from being a pretty good movie.
Back on the Strip opens in select cinemas on Friday, August 18, 2023.
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