Back on the Strip movie review (2023)

August 18, 2023 - Movies

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.

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