Magic Mike XXL is a cathartic redemptive response to its more cynical-minded predecessor, and a joyous, optimistic look to the future.
It’s a shame that, despite being directed, shot, and edited by such respected filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh and Gregory Jacobs, Magic Mike and its sequel still carry a stigma around with them that they are superficial larks for middle aged women. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – if these films are any indication, women are a severely underappreciated demographic, and the filmmakers righteously and comfortably thrill that audience. But they are also so much more. Where Soderbergh’s 2012 film, which revolves around a 19-year-old’s experience as he enters the world of male stripping guided by experienced dancer Mike Lane (Channing Tatum), emerged from a place of cynicism toward the idea of the American Dream, Jacobs’ followup provides an optimistic perspective moving forward. Magic Mike XXL is a quintessential piece of true progressive expressionism for the modern era. The male panic and anxiety that stems from the roots of self-doubt and uncomfortability regarding one’s own sexuality is thoroughly rejected by the film, wearing its honest sexual promiscuity on its sleeve. Nobody gets bent out of shape over monogamy, body types, or the clothes they wear. It doesn’t belabor over how progressive and woke everybody is, it simply exemplifies respectful, inclusive values without needing to discuss them or painfully overemphasize them. It also makes a point to acknowledge rampant toxicity, and it manages to do this so casually and intelligently that you never feel unnerved or rubbed the wrong way. It isn’t sexist in the way it depicts what women want, the interactions between men and women, or normative power dynamics. It’s oddly patriotic, but not in a way that feels forced down our throats by Uncle Sam himself; rather it feels like this spirited, attractive look at what the US could be.
Magic Mike XXL picks up three years after the events of the previous movie, where Mike is retired from stripping, but the former dancer misses the excitement of being on stage, and, more to the point, he misses his good friends. Opportunity comes knocking when the guys ask him to join them on a road trip to Myrtle Beach to perform at an exotic-dance convention. The film doesn’t follow a conventional narrative structure, instead choosing a loose story on which we track these dudes’ journeys of finding meaning and authenticity. To fully understand Magic Mike XXL, I think it is necessary to understand the context from which it emerged, specifically through the lens of the original film.
The original Magic Mike was made in the phase of Soderbergh’s career when the director was experimenting with cinéma vérité, which is a style of filmmaking that applies documentary and neorealism techniques to capture cinematic truth; at the same time, he was also fascinated by post-economic crisis America. So when he agreed to direct a film based on Channing Tatum‘s personal experience as a Florida-born dancer, that film about male strippers dismissed by many as catnip for women became a serious art house exercise immersed in recession-era economic anxieties. For that first film, Soderbergh used yellow-straw filters to present a jaundiced, sickly world where humans, their interactions, and their bodies are now commodities to use and sell, where fantasies are the only means of escape left. A film that, at every opportunity, highlights the escapist thrill of these fantasies and the perversion of American iconography, culminating in a cynical conclusion of the American Dream: this idea that anyone and everyone can find success if they have the determination and work ethic to do so is just as ridiculous a fantasy as sexy dudes in cowboy getup dancing to “Save A Horse Ride A Cowboy“.
It is from within this mindset, this recognition of the dire state of modern sociopolitical affairs, that Jacobs’ followup emerges; and yet, it isn’t a panicked response, rather an optimistic demonstration of togetherness as a path forward. Right off the bat, the most interesting thing about the sequel is that, apart from returning characters and aesthetic similarities, it has very little in common with its predecessor. This time around, it isn’t a cynical descent into the dark side of stripping in an attempt to capture very real American anxieties, but a celebration of everything America, and specifically masculinity, should and could be. It is about how we can find true joy in simple empathy and equality, and this optimism permeates every element of the film. Often criticized for its lack of plot and stakes, which the original mostly tacked on to fit the mold of a 70s character piece, XXL’s sense of anti-narrative is kind of the point. That lack of traditional narrative trajectory allows the film to play as a series of vignettes, short impressionistic scenes designed to ruminate on all the ways we can casually focus on the betterment of America as a safe and happy environment. It is a literal pilgrimage, a journey of both moral and spiritual significance in the trappings of a bro road trip movie. In Magic Mike XXL, stripping is presented as an almost abstract mode of expression, no different from any other art or service, a thing of collective beauty, passion, and determination that gives back whatever you put into it.
The very loose story we track these dudes on is one of finding meaning and authenticity, especially in their passions, whether that be male entertaining, painting, or even frozen yogurt – and also healthy, intimate ways to express and communicate them. These men feel amazing on stage. They release so much energy, passion, and genuine joy, and a large part of that joy comes from making others feel these amazing feelings too. It’s a collective artistry, and thus a collective emotional catharsis – but one that these men and women can’t seem to replicate in their personal lives. We see this in Mike’s rebuilding of his friendships, and in all of the women who go to these male entertainers because the men in their lives won’t listen to them, as well as in a midway reveal that Mike was such a man at one point, that his relationship crumbled because he didn’t know or bother to ask what she might have wanted from him. The film’s suggestion is that, if they could just translate the qualities they bring to the stage – that clarity and comfort in their sexuality and identity, and the openness and honesty of their interactions – their onstage joy could just as easily be their real life happiness.
The movie doesn’t just preach this ideology, it practices it in its filmmaking. Jacobs has his camera constantly lingering on the shape and movement of bodies, seeing them not just as forms of freedom, but as equally capable of the same lessons. All the genuine energy and joy of the stage permeates each frame. That this celebration of empathy and equality culminates on the 4th of July with American flags waving everywhere is no accident either. The filmmakers, and the crew of visionaries led by Tatum himself, profess this is the face that masculinity, particularly of the American brand, should be putting forth. Improving the country isn’t as easy or simple as just this of course, and the film acknowledges it – but choosing to empathize and communicate with each other in healthy ways seems like a damn good place to start.
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