Mary Ann Bernard knows how to give the audience what they want. After a quick establishing shot, the editor of Magic Mike XXL cuts to a close-up of star Channing Tatum’s dreamy face for the first ten seconds of the movie. The crowd I attended the movie with (made up of about 95% women) started cheering and clapping as soon as he appeared, sitting quietly in repose staring at a beach at sunrise. Mary Ann Bernard is actually the pseudonym for filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. In addition to editing, he also handled cinematography under his alias Peter Andrews. For this sequel to his 2012 exploration of the male exotic dancing world, he handed over directing duties to his long-time assistant director Gregory Jacobs. Together, the two made a movie – with the help of screenwriter Reid Carolin – that really surprised me.
Magic Mike XXL knows what it is, so it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which was a major flaw with the first film. At the same time, writer Carolin had enough to say that he actually made the movie about something, which was also where the original movie failed. XXL picks up three years after the events of Magic Mike. Between the two movies, Mike (Tatum) left the world of male exotic dancing behind, and finally made his dream come true – running a custom-order furniture business. A call from a member of his old dancing crew makes him rethink all the ones and fives he’s left on the glitter-streaked dance floor. As he welds pieces of furniture together and listens to a streaming service that allows for some egregious product placement, Mike is overtaken by the rhythm of Ginuwine’s Pony. He can’t help himself, and starts grinding to the song as he welds – the phallic use of his work materials caused audible swoons and laughter from the audience. The Kings of Tampa (his former dance colleagues) remind him of what he’s been missing, and they convince him to hit the road to perform at a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach so they can all have one more shot at greatness. It’s a “one last job” heist movie and a road trip movie rolled into one, but with hot guys stripping instead of stealing stuff.
But as much oiled up muscle action as there is in Magic Mike XXL, there’s also more to it. Laugh at the male strippers if you must, but what they do is a type of performance, and they take a great amount of joy from it. Actor and musician Donald Glover (a.k.a. rapper Childish Gambino, and Troy from the cult TV show Community) philosophizes about the topic in one of the handful of cameos that are peppered throughout the movie. His character, Andre, works as a sort of performance artist at a club the Kings of Tampa visit on their trek to Myrtle Beach. He talks about how if his career took off, he would probably still do what he does at the club on the side, because the enjoyment of the art he gets to create is something he wouldn’t want to let go. That and all the hot chicks he gets to meet.
There’s also the hint of a feminist message simmering in this movie. It’s on display in one sequence in particular, when the Kings stop at a friend’s house for the night during their trip. At the house, the dancers find a group of women having a dinner party. Andie MacDowell plays Nancy, the mother of the Kings’ friend. After more than a few glasses of wine, Nancy and her guests start quizzing Mike and his crew about romantic interests, and the middle-aged women feel free to give voice to their own desires. The idea of women having fantasies of their own, and being active participants instead of just passive objects for men’s desires are topics rarely explored in movies, and it’s nice to see here. The same goes for the blow-out dance sequence at the end of the movie. I believe the filmmakers thought very carefully about who they would feature participating in the show. This is a major Hollywood film, so it would be easy to imagine the kind of women brought up to the stage to get involved in the routines. Athletic build, slim, big boobs, right? Sure, there are a few women who look like that in the sequence, but many don’t fit the classical definition of Hollywood beauty. I can’t get inside the filmmaker’s heads, but the message I got is that women of all shapes and sizes have sexual desires, and that’s okay.
These motifs offer something to latch onto besides just watching hot guys take off their clothes. That was about all the original Magic Mike had going for it. The dialog in that movie bordered on banal, and a lot of the acting was substandard. I’m not suggesting the screenplay for XXL rises to Oscar winning levels, but it’s glutes and abs above the first movie.
I mentioned Steven Soderbergh was responsible for the cinematography. I don’t know what happened, but XXL wasn’t anywhere near as visually distinctive as Magic Mike or most of his other work, for that matter. In the first film – which he also shot – Soderbergh gave the whole film a rich, yellow hue that invoked the sun-soaked Florida setting. It was a gorgeous movie to look at. XXL is by no means ugly, but it doesn’t have that trademark Steven Soderbergh touch, which is disappointing. That’s a small issue considering how much I enjoyed Magic Mike XXL. Last year, Soderbergh told Esquire magazine the reason he quit directing movies is because “it stopped being fun.” Maybe he just needed to get out of the director’s chair, because from where I was sitting, it looked like everyone had plenty of fun making this movie. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go download Pony by Ginuwine.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
-It’s a solidly entertaining movie from start to finish.
-While that first point is true, we are still talking about a road movie about the exploits of a group of male exotic dancers. Lawrence of Arabia, it ain’t.
-A depressing lack of Matthew McConaughey in this installment. Or as a friend more precisely describes it, no McConaughcheeks.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
-I was so glad this movie actually gave Matt Bomer something to do, unlike in the first Magic Mike. Bomer is great here.
-You guys, the dance number set to Nine Inch Nail’s Closer… it must be seen to be believed.
-At 2 hours and 10 minutes, the movie feels a little flabby. It could easily have lost twenty minutes and felt tighter (but those bodies couldn’t have been any tighter, amiright, ladies?!?)
-I was told by an anonymous source that the face I make when I “dance” is shockingly similar to the face Joe Manganiello makes when he dances.
- Soderbergh/Jacobs brought back the old school 1970s Warner Bros. logo to start both films. I LOVE this.