Back on the Strip 2023 Movie Review
The filmmakers of “Back on the Strip” should have put this rotten screenplay back in the garbage where it belongs. This very unfunny comedy panders to negative racial stereotypes and looks like it’s from the mind of an emotionally stunted teenager. The plot gets worse and worse as it goes along, until the last third of the film just becomes a steaming pile of wretched stupidity.
Directed by Chris Spencer (who co-wrote the atrocious screenplay with Eric Daniel), “Back on the Strip” isn’t just a comedy with very stale and outdated jokes. It’s also quite boring and a waste of time for a movie that’s nearly two hours long and doesn’t have anything interesting to say. “Back on the Strip” is Spencer’s feature-film directorial debut, after he directed a handful of TV episodes for TV series such as TV One’s “Uncensored” and BET’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” Many of the cast members of “Back on the Strip” have celebrity name recognition, but they’ve also been in plenty of bad movies. “Back on the Strip” is another in a long list of their embarrassing flops.
In “Back on the Strip,” the annoying narrator is Verna Owens (played by Tiffany Haddish, one of the movie’s producers), a single mother living in Los Angeles with her young adult son Jason Owens (played by Spence Moore II), whose nickname is Merlin. He has this nickname because he’s been obsessed with becoming a professional magician, ever since he was 15 years old. In the beginning of the movie, Merlin is 20.
Verna says and does a lot of things that are cringeworthy in how they make African American women look low-class and ignorant. This junkpile movie doesn’t care to mention or show how Verna makes money. The “Back on the Strip” filmmakers made Verna’s only purpose in the movie to be a nasty stereotype of what racist people think most African American women are like. In other words, Haddish is doing more of her ghetto-minded schtick in a low-quality movie.
In the narration, Verna describes Merlin this way: “He only cares about two things: magic and Robin.” Actually, Robin isn’t a “thing.” She’s a human being. Robin (played by Raigan Harris) is Merlin’s girlfriend, and she’s completely supportive of Merlin’s dreams to become a magician. Robin has her own career goals: She wants to become a professional dancer and is attending the prestigious arts university Juilliard in New York City. Merlin worries that the long distance will end their relationship.
Merlin has entered a talent contest where he will do his magician act. Verna has accompanied him. Before going on stage, Merlin is taunted by a group of young white rappers saying that Merlin looks like a clown in his magician’s outfit. The group is led by an obnoxious bully (played by Alex Kersting), who calls Verna an “old lady” and a “bitch.” She reacts to these insults by hitting the bully leader on the head with her fist.
During the talent contest, Merlin is on stage for less than a minute when the bully leader, who’s watching backstage from stage left, gets revenge by pulling down Merlin’s trousers and underwear. (There is no actual nudity in “Back on the Strip.”) With his private parts exposed to the audience, Merlin is humiliated and runs off stage. He doesn’t notice an elderly woman in the audience standing and cheering, as she shouts that Merlin is “blessed” in his genital area. “Back on the Strip” makes several references to Merlin having a large penis.
In the beginning of the movie, Merlin repeatedly tells people that he’s not a clown when dressed as a magician. After his embarrassment at the talent show, “Back on the Strip” fast forwards to four years later, when 24-year-old Merlin actually is a clown. He’s at a kiddie birthday party, and he’s dressed as a clown who does magic tricks.
And here comes another “Merlin’s got a large penis” gag: The birthday girl’s unnamed father (played Kevin Hart) gets annoyed and starts yelling at Merlin because Merlin’s big bulge can be seen in Merlin’s trousers when he’s jumping on a trampoline. Some of the women at the party like what they see though. Needless to say, Merlin gets fired from this party job.
Merlin gets even worse news when he attends a party for Robin, who drops a bombshell: She’s dating a conceited actor named Blaze (played by Ryan Alexander Holmes), who’s also a social media star because of his viral videos and his TV prank show. Robin is a dance mentor on a dance talent contest called “Hollywood and Grind,” which is described in the movie as “Dancing With the Stars” for black people. Blaze was paired with Robin, and the two of them began dating each other. Robin also has a meddling best friend named Gia (played by Piper Curda), who has a secret infatuation with Blaze.
Merlin is crushed by the news that Robin has a new boyfriend, and he feels very inadequate compared to Blaze. At the party, Merlin impulsively makes up a lie and tells Robin and some other party attendees that he has a magician job in Las Vegas. Verna overhears Merlin tells this lie and decides to do something about it, with the hope that it will also help ease Merlin’s heartbreak over Robin: Verna gives Merlin a one-way plane ticket to Las Vegas.
Verna used to work in Las Vegas and refers Merlin to a former co-worker named Rita (played by Colleen Camp), a disheveled marijuana smoker who currently owns a run-down hotel called the Vagrant Inn Vegas. A “joke” in the movie is that the hotel’s outdoor sign only has these letters lit up “vag” in Vagrant, “in” in Inn and “a” in Vegas. Merlin lives at the hotel and notices that the letters “vag,” “in” and “a” put together spell “vagina.” This revelation is supposed to be “hilarious” in the movie.
Merlin convinces a reluctant Rita to let him do his magic act one night at the hotel’s nearly deserted bar/nightclub. The audience consists of less than seven people. Merlin does his act and bombs with the audience. But then once again, his trousers come down when they catch on fire (don’t ask), the women in the audience see how “well-endowed” Merlin is, and suddenly, they love the show.
Also witnessing this spectacle is Luther Ellis (played by Wesley Snipes, one of the producers of “Back on the Strip”), a former member of an all-male stripper group called the Chocolate Chips, who were very popular in Las Vegas about 30 years ago. Luther’s stage name in the group was Mr. Big. After seeing Merlin’s physique, Luther gets the idea to reunite the Chocolate Chips and add Merlin as a new member. Luther, who uses a cane because of a leg injury, will not be a dancer in this reunited group, but he will be the group’s manager and emcee.
Merlin says no at first to Luther’s stripper job offer, until Merlin changes his mind because he needs the money. “Back on the Strip” then goes through very tedious and not-funny-at-all sequences of Luther and Merlin tracking down the other former members of the Chocolate Chips, who all still live in the Las Vegas area. Each former member has something about them that makes them a less-than-ideal candidate for this stripper reunion.
Desmond “Da Body” Day (played by Faizon Love) was known for being the most physically fit member of the Chocolate Chips. Now, Desmond is very overweight. Tyriq “Da Face” Cox (played by Bill Bellamy) was known as the “pretty boy” of the Chocolate Chips. Now, Tyriq is a happily married father who’s busy with four infant quadruplet daughters.
Amos “Slim Sexy” Fowler (played by J.B. Smoove) was known for being the raunchiest dancer when he was a member of the Chocolate Chips. Now, Amos is a born-again Christian pastor with an equally religious wife named Eve Fowler (played by Caryn Ward), who knows about Amos’ past as a stripper. Eve immensely dislikes the thought of Amos being a stripper. Eve used to be Desmond’s girlfriend. There’s a useless subplot of Desmond and Eve going on platonic dates together without Amos knowing.
The Chocolate Chips got their name because they were marketed as a stripper group consisting only of black men. One of the group’s former members is Xander (played by Gary Owen), whose stripper stage name was Dr. X. Now, Xander is a real-life doctor (he’s a plastic surgeon) with a trophy wife named Bambi (played by Emelina Adams), who looks like she’s no stranger to plastic surgery.
The “joke” about Xander is that when he was in the Chocolate Chips, he always wore a full-face mask. Now, all these years later, his former Chocolate Chip mates are shocked to find out that Xander is white. (He used dark makeup and tanning on the rest of his body to pass himself of as a black man while working as a stripper.)
The rest of “Back on the Strip” shows this ragtag group of middle-aged strippers and a young newcomer (Merlin’s stripper stage name is Black Magic), as the Chocolate Chips make a comeback, beginning in Rita’s tacky hotel nightclub. Meanwhile, Robin and Blaze get engaged. And then, the Chocolate Chips are hired to work at a bachelorette party. You know where this is going, of course.
“Back on the Strip” could have actually been a very entertaining film because the movie’s overall concept had the potential to be a good movie. Unfortunately, “Back on the Strip” is such an unrelenting pile-on of idiocy and terrible jokes, there’s no redeeming it, no matter how many famous people are in the cast. The stripping scenes are lackluster, the acting is unimpressive, and there are asinine plot developments that truly insult viewers’ intelligence.
Don’t expect to see much of Merlin’s so-called “magician’s talent” in the movie, which shoves the magician storyline out of the way to make room for the stripper storyline. The magician storyline is only brought back briefly toward the end of the movie. By then, most viewers won’t really care. The only real magic act in “Back on the Strip” is how it makes any quality filmmaking disappear the more this witless abomination drags on to its irritating end.