June 13, 2024 8:32 pm

Back on the Strip
Back on the Strip

Back on the Strip

“Back on the Strip,” about a young man who wants to become a magician and the middle-aged ex-strippers who train him to be an exotic dancer instead, is a slapped-together indie comedy. It would probably crater completely and become unwatchable were it not for the charisma of its actors, which is boundless, and the lightheartedness of the entire project: it knows that the purpose of this movie is to make people laugh, no matter what it takes, and that the more shameless the joke or sight gag, the bigger the laugh. 

The five strippers, who were stars in Las Vegas in the 1990s and called themselves The Chocolate Chips, are played by Wesley Snipes (as Luther, aka “Mr. Big”), J.B. Smoove (as Amos, a preacher by day), Bill Bellamy (as Tyriq, a stay-at-home dad to four daughters he sired with his wife, a female bodybuilder), Faison Love (as Desmond, a garage owner who’s gained 100 pounds since his stripping days), and Gary Owen (a white doctor with a breast augmentation clinic who, back in the day, fooled the other four into thinking he was Black; more on that in a moment). Any of these actors has more charm and comic timing in his pinky toe than most actors have in their whole bodies. The film benefits enormously just from having them onscreen, getting the old “band” back together, working through the differences that split them up 25 years ago, and busting each other’s chops with the easygoing intimacy of brothers. 

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t really about them. It’s about Merlin and his career ambitions and romantic problems. Will he win his dream job and dream girl? You know the answer, and the movie knows you know the answer, but it stays focused on Merlin, to the point where “Back on the Strip” turns into a modern equivalent of one of those old movies that cast aging comedians that audiences actually came to the theater to see, but subordinates their clowning to a love story between two comparatively bland leads. The movie gets a lot better once the Chocolate Chips get together again and start rehearsing and reconnecting, and it gives all of the characters a subplot. 

When we meet Merlin, he’s a high school senior in Los Angeles who’s madly in love with his best friend and magic assistant Robin (Raigin Harris), one of those cheerful, poised, beautiful, smart ciphers that lovable, ambitious heroes often have in comedies. Merlin wants to go to Las Vegas and hit big as an illusionist, and tells Robin about his goal. Alas, his performance at the high school magic show is ruined by his own mistakes, then by the treachery of one of his rivals, the leader of a group of all-white self-styled gangsta rappers from Beverly Hills, who pulls down Merlin’s pants and underwear onstage. Thus do we learn of Merlin’s true gift: a member so enormous that when we see it tucked into his underwear, it suggests a two-foot-long kielbasa folded in half.

Flash-forward a few years to Merlin after college: he’s working as a birthday party clown with trio of other clowns and still dreaming of going to Vegas when he runs into Robin again. Unfortunately, Merlin also meets her snotty, condescending boyfriend, who is about to become her fiancé: Blaze (Ryan Alexander Holmes), who says he’s a comedian but is mainly an “influencer” who spends seemingly every waking moment recording himself and his posse and posting the footage online. Merlin’s supportive single mother Verna (Tiffany Haddish) helps her son make his big move to Vegas by calling up her old friend Rita (Colleen Camp), an old stoner who runs a run-down motel with a burned-out neon sign (the only working letters spell out “VAGINA”) and arranges for Merlin to stay there for a week while auditioning for magic gigs and obsessing over his loss of Robin.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I’ve seen this nice guy-nice girl-rotten fiancé configuration a million times—what about the aging strippers played by a bunch of can’t-miss character actors?”, you’re just going to have to deal with it, because the movie is determined to go through the motions and contrivances of keeping the appealingly performed but boringly written Merlin and Robin from realizing their destiny, right up until the climax, which fans of a certain famous storyline on “A Different World” would have seen coming from twenty kielbasas away even if the characters didn’t have a long scene where they talked about it while watching a rerun. Directed by Chris Spencer, who cowrote the screenplay with Eric Daniel, “Back on the Strip” doesn’t trouble itself with anything it isn’t actually interested in, such as giving the romantic leads real and complicated personalities rather than writing them as a couple of ingenues, or, for that matter, even making you believe that young Merlin is a good or even competent magician. 

In theaters now.

“Back on the Strip,” about a young man who wants to become a magician and the middle-aged ex-strippers who train him to be an exotic dancer instead, is a slapped-together indie comedy. It would probably crater completely and become unwatchable were it not for the charisma of its actors, which is boundless, and the lightheartedness of the entire project: it knows that the purpose of this movie is to make people laugh, no matter what it takes, and that the more shameless the joke or sight gag, the bigger the laugh.  The five strippers, who were stars in Las Vegas in the 1990s and called themselves The Chocolate Chips, are played by Wesley Snipes (as Luther, aka “Mr. Big”), J.B. Smoove (as Amos, a preacher by day), Bill Bellamy (as Tyriq, a stay-at-home dad to four daughters he sired with his wife, a female bodybuilder), Faison Love (as Desmond, a garage owner who’s gained 100 pounds since his stripping days), and Gary Owen (a white doctor with a breast augmentation clinic who, back in the day, fooled the other four into thinking he was Black; more on that in a moment). Any of these actors has more charm and comic timing in his pinky toe than most actors have in their whole bodies. The film benefits enormously just from having them onscreen, getting the old “band” back together, working through the differences that split them up 25 years ago, and busting each other’s chops with the easygoing intimacy of brothers.  Unfortunately, the movie isn’t really about them. It’s about Merlin and his career ambitions and romantic problems. Will he win his dream job and dream girl? You know the answer, and the movie knows you know the answer, but it stays focused on Merlin, to the point where “Back on the Strip” turns into a modern equivalent of one of those old movies that cast aging comedians that audiences actually came to the theater to see, but subordinates their clowning to a love story between two comparatively bland leads. The movie gets a lot better once the Chocolate Chips get together again and start rehearsing and reconnecting, and it gives all of the characters a subplot.  When we meet Merlin, he’s a high school senior in Los Angeles who’s madly in love with his best friend and magic assistant Robin (Raigin Harris), one of those cheerful, poised, beautiful, smart ciphers that lovable, ambitious heroes often have in comedies. Merlin wants to go to Las Vegas and hit big as an illusionist, and tells Robin about his goal. Alas, his performance at the high school magic show is ruined by his own mistakes, then by the treachery of one of his rivals, the leader of a group of all-white self-styled gangsta rappers from Beverly Hills, who pulls down Merlin’s pants and underwear onstage. Thus do we learn of Merlin’s true gift: a member so enormous that when we see it tucked into his underwear, it suggests a two-foot-long kielbasa folded in half. Flash-forward a few years to Merlin after college: he’s working as a birthday party clown with trio of other clowns and still dreaming of going to Vegas when he runs into Robin again. Unfortunately, Merlin also meets her snotty, condescending boyfriend, who is about to become her fiancé: Blaze (Ryan Alexander Holmes), who says he’s a comedian but is mainly an “influencer” who spends seemingly every waking moment recording himself and his posse and posting the footage online. Merlin’s supportive single mother Verna (Tiffany Haddish) helps her son make his big move to Vegas by calling up her old friend Rita (Colleen Camp), an old stoner who runs a run-down motel with a burned-out neon sign (the only working letters spell out “VAGINA”) and arranges for Merlin to stay there for a week while auditioning for magic gigs and obsessing over his loss of Robin. If you’re reading this and thinking, “I’ve seen this nice guy-nice girl-rotten fiancé configuration a million times—what about the aging strippers played by a bunch of can’t-miss character actors?”, you’re just going to have to deal with it, because the movie is determined to go through the motions and contrivances of keeping the appealingly performed but boringly written Merlin and Robin from realizing their destiny, right up until the climax, which fans of a certain famous storyline on “A Different World” would have seen coming from twenty kielbasas away even if the characters didn’t have a long scene where they talked about it while watching a rerun. Directed by Chris Spencer, who cowrote the screenplay with Eric Daniel, “Back on the Strip” doesn’t trouble itself with anything it isn’t actually interested in, such as giving the romantic leads real and complicated personalities rather than writing them as a couple of ingenues, or, for that matter, even making you believe that young Merlin is a good or even competent magician.  In theaters now. Read More