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‘Back on the Strip’ Review: Wesley Snipes and Tiffany Haddish in a Male Stripper Comedy That Lacks the Right Moves

There have been funny male stripper movies (The Full Monty), auteur-directed male stripper movies (Magic Mike), Black male stripper movies (three Chocolate City films). Now comes Back on the Strip, yet another attempt to wrest humor and drama from the spectacle of scantily clad men gyrating to audiences of wildly appreciative women. The independent film receiving a wide release definitely leans toward the funnier end of the spectrum, with its overqualified cast including many formidable comedic talents. But despite some amusing moments, it never really takes off, burdened by a tiresome romantic subplot that periodically stops the movie dead in its tracks.

The story revolves around Merlin (Spence Moore II), whose name stems from his lifelong desire to pursue a career as a magician. His supportive single mother Verna (Tiffany Haddish), who narrates the proceedings, encourages him in his dreams and roots for him when he makes an appearance at a local talent contest. But Merlin is humiliated when some white rappers sabotage his trick and he literally winds up with his pants down. And that’s when his true talent is revealed.

Back on the Strip

The Bottom Line Wrings some laughs from a weak script.

Release date: Friday, Aug. 18
Cast: Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Wesley Snipes, Gary Owen, J.B. Smoove, Faizon Love, Spence Moore II, Bell Bellamy, Raigan Harris, Colleen Camp
Director: Chris Spencer
Screenwriters: Chris Spencer, Eric Daniel
Rated R, 1 hour 57 minutes

Cut to four years later, when Merlin is working as a magic-performing clown at children’s birthday parties, where he once again inadvertently reveals his impressive manhood. The female parents in the crowd are enthralled, but not an “uptight dad” — that’s how the character is listed in the credits — played by Kevin Hart in a cameo that allows the comedic superstar to deliver a hilarious tantrum and then get out of the movie while the getting is good.

Merlin’s woes are further magnified when he learns that his neighbor Robin (Raigan Harris), with whom he’s been in love since childhood, is now engaged to Blaze (Ryan Alexander Holmes), a social media influencer who lives up to his vocation by being thoroughly obnoxious. To cheer her son up, Verna buys him a one-way ticket to Las Vegas and hooks him up with her old friend Rita (a very funny Colleen Camp), who runs the decrepit “Vagrant Inn Vegas.” Many of the outdoor sign’s illuminated letters have burnt out, leaving the letters spelling “Vagina.” It’s but one of many vagina jokes in the movie, when none would have sufficed.

Rita allows Merlin to try out his magic act for a bunch of bored female patrons at happy hour, and once again he manages to accidentally showcase his prodigious member (when it’s finally revealed toward the end of the film, at least through cloth, it makes Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler look under-equipped). He attracts the attention of Luther (Wesley Snipes, ineffably cool), who used to head up The Chocolate Chips, a group of five Black male strippers who were once the hottest show in Vegas.

Cue the reunion sequence, in which Luther and Merlin attempt to round up the old gang, all of whom have undergone considerable life changes: Desmond, aka Mr. Body (Faizon Love), now has at least twice the body he had before; Amos, aka Mr. Slim Sexy (J.B. Smoove), is now a preacher who employs some of his former dance moves in his impassioned sermons; Tyriq, aka Mr. Face (Bill Bellamy), is now the father of infant quadruplet daughters; and Xander, aka Dr. X (Gary Owen), who used to perform with his face hidden behind a mask, is now a doctor for real. And oh, he turns out not to be really Black.

The four comedians playing those roles prove the film’s strongest asset, wringing laughs from the weak screenplay by director Chris Spencer and co-screenwriter Eric Daniel in a way that suggests improvising was heavily encouraged. Their ribald interactions prove genuinely funny at times, especially in a scene in which Xander takes his white privilege for granted while provoking a racist cop.

Unfortunately, Back on the Strip loses momentum shortly after, getting bogged down in tiresome storylines involving Merlin and Blaze competing for Robin’s affections via various subterfuges, Amos’ marital problems and a revelation involving Luther’s past. It doesn’t help that Snipes disappears from the film for long stretches at a time, that the overly cutesy musical score practically provides rim shots for the bad jokes, and that this may be the least sexy male stripper movie in history.

Full credits

Production: MMJ Productions
Distributor: Luminosity Releasing, GVN Releasing
Cast: Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Wesley Snipes, Gary Owen, J.B. Smoove, Faizon Love, Spence Moore II, Bell Bellamy, Raigan Harris, Colleen Camp
Director: Chris Spencer
Screenwriters: Chris Spencer, Eric Daniel
Producers: Geno Taylor, Missy Valdez, Wesley Snipes, Tiffany Haddish, Chris Spencer, Eric Daniel, Elie Samaha, Donald Kushner, Jeru Tillman
Executive producers: Steven C. Markoff, Keysin Chen, Sherwin Jarol, Dan Fellman, Kathy Hao, Mishi Crowe, Daniel Diamond, Jared Underwood, Andrew C. Robinson, Slava Vladimirov, Kip Konwiser, Vanessa Rodriguez Spencer, Farouk Hadef, Carol Braidi
Director of photography: Joshua Reis
Production designer: Maximillian Pizzi
Editor: Jason Challinor
Costume designers: Ermelinda Manos, Dana Campbell
Casting: Sheila Jaffe, Vanessa Rodriguez Spencer
Rated R, 1 hour 57 minutes

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