It would come as no surprise to learn that “Back on the Strip” started out as a “Magic Mike” parody. I’m not saying that it did. (The main character is named Merlin, not Mike, after all.) But what else could explain the bizarrely literal premise of an ensemble indie comedy in which our hero is a wannabe magician who heads to Vegas hoping to be the next David Copperfield, only to wind up shaking his wand for a Chippendales-style male dance revue instead?
What makes “Strip” so consistently funny for most of its too-long two-hour running time isn’t Merlin’s lame prestidigi-dream (that part feels like co-writers Chris Spencer and Eric Daniel have been watching too many Nickelodeon movies) but the sorry state of his fellow dancers: a has-been crew called the Chocolate Chips. That fairly original hook allowed the filmmakers to round up an A-list lineup for this C-grade endeavor. The movie features everyone from Tiffany Haddish (as Merlin’s mom) to Wesley Snipes (playing team captain “Mr. Big,” real name Luther). There’s even a one-scene cameo from Kevin Hart (fully dressed, mind you) in which he flips out after Merlin flops out.
How to put it politely? Merlin may not be much of a magician, but he’s “blessed” with other gifts — the joke being that this oblivious kid has missed his calling. Every time he goes onstage, the audience winds up oohing and aahing. Whether it’s the audition where his costume catches fire, exposing Merlin’s bulging basket or the talent show at which his rivals yank his pants down in front of the whole school, the movie makes a big deal of his endowment (even if it denies audiences the big “Boogie Nights” reveal). But is size really a stripper’s most important asset? In the movie’s reductive view of things, it’s practically all that matters, whereas the dancers’ personalities are what win us over.
When Merlin shows up at the Cookie Club (a run-down showroom in desperate need of saving), Luther gets one look at the kid’s bulge and decides to reassemble the Chocolate Chips. Mr. Big — who bears a certain genetic similarity to Merlin (you do the math) — broke his leg in a car accident a while back, so he doesn’t dance. Instead, he’ll be serving as emcee, relying on Merlin to headline. But first, they’ll need to convince the other four strippers to put their thongs back on.
Rather than casting hot bodies, the movie looks to comedians with more unconventional physiques to embody the out-to-pasture old team — which turns out to be a much better strategy. Think about it: Unless you’re a strip club regular, chances are, nervous laughter (and/or judgy jokes at the studs’ expense) is your natural reaction to a burlesque show. “Strip” leans into that impulse, as Spencer treats the routines as comedic set-pieces, devising obstacles for each of the dancers, while den mother Rita (Colleen Camp) cheers them on.
Bill Bellamy plays Tyriq, who’s now a stay-at-home dad with quadruplets. As Luther puts it, “A lot has changed since I saw you with four girls in one bed.” The transformation is even more dramatic with Desmond “Da Body” (plus-sized comic Faizon Love), who doesn’t look a thing like the heavily Photoshopped poster of his once-chiseled former self. Charismatic Amos, aka Mr. Slim Sexy (J.B. Smoove), still has the moves, but now puts them to work as a pastor. And everyone’s surprised to discover that Dr. X (the very white Gary Owen) is in fact very white. Turns out, the crotch-stuffing impostor spray-tanned his way into their ranks … and doesn’t seem that bothered by the deception.
In real life, none of these men would likely find work stripping on the ultra-competitive, image-conscious Las Vegas Strip — but they’re a lot more amusing than bodybuilders slathered in baby oil would be. (Why go to the theater for the latter, when indecent thirst traps are giving it away for free on Instagram?) “Back on the Strip” is a bring-your-friends, girls’-night-out kind of movie, and like “Magic Mike XXL,” it has a more expansive view of what women find sexy. I LOLed when “daddy” Tyriq picked up one woman’s vest and folded it, the way he does his daughter’s laundry. And I won’t soon forget the sight of Desmond transformed into a human sundae, dousing himself in sprinkles.
What doesn’t work is that darn magic subplot, or the boring romance between Merlin and lifelong bestie Robin (Raigan Harris), who comes back from Juilliard with a new beau, Blaze (Ryan Alexander Holmes), a viral prank-video phenom whose proposal dashes Merlin’s hopes of marrying Robin himself. Can he win her back? Will his new stripping career sabotage his chances? And perhaps most importantly, what happens to the magician’s rabbit glimpsed in the opening scene?
Despite wall-to-wall narration by Haddish (at her most raunchy), the movie does a clumsy job of telling a not-very-complicated story. Then again, this lean team effort is Spencer’s directorial debut, and he gets the laughs. Strip away the pomp and polish of a bigger-budget project, and that’s all that matters.
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