Never before has the tagline “You’re Welcome” been so appropriate and so accurate.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Magic Mike XXL is in the business of giving the people exactly what they want. It knows that the people turned up to Magic Mike to see really, really ridiculously good-looking men strip for their enjoyment for 100-odd minutes, and occasionally some plot would intrude on the sidelines to give everyone a breather – in other words: they turned up to see the film that they were sold. Instead, audiences were treated to a rather serious dramedy about those affected by the recession and who only use male stripping as a way to make ends meet, whilst the stripping segments were shot and treated like Soderbergh was resentful of even having to include them as they got in the way of his serious dramedy that he would really like for you to pay attention to, dammit! This isn’t a problem, because the film is great and it’s Soderbergh so of course it’s great, but it’s not what the people initially wanted.
XXL is nothing but giving people what they want. It may start off seeming like we’re going to get more of the first Magic Mike, with a pensive shot of Mike staring off at the ocean looking miserable, but that is quickly revealed to be a misdirection, a reverse of the first film. Instead, XXL is pretty much 115 minutes of really, really ridiculously good-looking men gyrating in pretty much every last possible direction there is to gyrate in whilst the women on-screen lose their minds, broken up by sequences of these Best Bros For Life hanging out, ribbing on each other, and only sort-of-seriously contemplating their various futures. XXL is here to please, to (what some could see as) an almost cynical degree.
Not that I much care, because Donald Glover just walked down the stairs with a fashionable trilby, a dinner jacket with no shirt on underneath, and is now serenading this young woman with an improvised half-rap-half-crooned song because she needs a man to remind her of just how special she is and Donald Glover is precisely the man to do that job… and then he strips off his clothes and starts gyrating in her direction whilst the other ladies rain dollar bills from upon high. Look, Magic Mike XXL is exactly what it says it’s going to be, no bullshit, and I LOVE it for that. I sat down to see impossibly good-looking men, and also Kevin Nash but if that’s your kind of thing then you’ll receive no judgement from me, strip and dance for my enjoyment for nearly two hours, and I got the very best possible version of that!
There’s a part of me that wants to sit here and compare it to the first Magic Mike, as most everybody else will, but it really resists that. By its very nature as blatant fan-service, XXL is blazing a very different trail to that of the original film. That one was very bittersweet, very cynical, it has moments of joy and fun, but it’s wrapped up in these constant reminders that our protagonists are sad or angry people and that Mike doesn’t want to be a male stripper all his life. Couple that with almost all of the stripping sequences being cut short or shot at a distance, and you get a film that acts more as a cautionary tale about the “male entertainer” business than a celebration of it.
XXL is the exact opposite of that. There are scenes of our cast – which, for the record, consists of Mike (Channing Tatum), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Mike has joined the rest of the guys for one last ride up to Myrtle Beach for the 2015 Male Stripper Convention – wondering aloud about what they’re going to do when this is all over, but these are fleeting at most. Everyone is instead here to enjoy the ride, to go out in style, because everybody loves what they do and tomorrow will come with what may. It therefore feels more celebratory, more accepting of the male stripping business, instead of lumping it in as something that everyone is quietly ashamed of doing and therefore making it appear like a lesser life-choice.
Or, to better explain, it’s best encapsulated by a monologue delivered by Andre (the character that Donald Glover plays and, incidentally, I did not know that I needed Donald Glover abs in my life until this film showed me them) about two-thirds into the film. He relates to Ken how he first got into the industry in order to get more money, in the hopes that the cash would help him fund and further his rap career, thinking that he would hate the gig and resent himself for sinking so low. But over time, he found the work rewarding, enjoyable, motivating, empowering. He gets to meet loads of girls every night and he gets to make them feel better, make them feel alright for five wonderful minutes, and he loves the feeling that comes from that. And if his EP took off tomorrow, he’d try and find a way to keep it going on the side because he enjoys stripping that much. The film agrees with him, too: these men are providing a service, their job isn’t beneath them because there’s nothing wrong with it to begin with.
And though these guys do it for the thrill of the crowd and the adoration of women across the country, they’re not lecherous creeps or disrespectful arses. They respect women, enough to keep interactions professional when working and to respect if a woman is not interested in them when not working. They may ask each other if they got laid the previous night – or, as they actually say in the film, “Did you bangy?” – but nobody is seriously insulted if they don’t, and when Richie expresses a desire to find the one – for, you see, his nickname is not an exaggeration and that fact intimidates pretty much every woman he tries to have sex with – the rest of the guys are nothing but supportive of him for it. They tease each other, with Ken’s insistence that he is a “Grade 3 Reiki healer” being a constant target for mockery, but they never cross over into bullying and it all comes from a loving place.
If Entourage is a walking encapsulation of everything wrong with “bro-culture” and the entire concept of “bros”, Magic Mike XXL is a sharp rebuttal against the idea that “bro-culture” is just that. These are legitimately charming and likeable men who are still dudes and bros, but are self-aware enough to not be misogynistic bullies. Their bonds are strong and genuine, since the film gives everyone more than enough time and moments to interact with one another and display that legitimate affection. For an example of that respectfulness, Mike spends a fair bit of the movie bonding with a girl called Zoe (Amber Heard). He clearly wants to sleep with her, but she resists the idea and the two instead become teasing friends throughout the rest of the movie, through things like her mocking him for preferring cookies over cake – “Cookie people can’t be trusted” she quite rightly notes – or him giving her the lap dance to end all lap dances at the film’s end. Does it matter that she feels superfluous to the plot, like she was meant to have some significance at some point but that got drafted out? No, no it does not because she still feels well-drawn and is a really likeable screen presence.
Besides, this is a movie about giving the people what they want. That’s why there are quite literally zero stakes, because that runs the risk of dampening the mood. It’s a fun, happy-times hang-out movie when it’s not walking right up to the line of softcore pornography. Speaking of: god, every single one of this film’s stripping segments are amazing! This is a film that takes great pleasure in getting its cast members to debase themselves for the enjoyment of straight women, gay men, and bisexual folks everywhere, the camera providing excellent views of every gyration, every twerk, every slide, every bicep, ab, heavenly blue eyes that you can just get lost in. Joe Mangianello gets high on MDMA and proceeds to turn a gas station store into a non-stop playground of sexual innuendo that barely gets away from being straight up sex, Channing Tatum says his name whilst twirling out of the room because that is the dreamiest fucking thing I have ever seen in my entire life, Matt Bomer imitates Justin Timberlake imitating Michael Jackson for 5 wonderful minutes, and the film ends with 20 straight minutes of male stripping before going directly to the credits because that’s what we all came here to see and why pretend otherwise?
And the film anchors this with both a cast of wonderful, charming, and charismatic men who are willing and eager to allow themselves to be taken apart and looked at as lust-after-able and loveable man meat, and a nearly show-stealing Jada Pinkett Smith. I want to really stress this: in the movie equivalent of the viewer being the cheese slap-bang in the middle of a delicious beefcake sandwich for 115 glorious minutes, Jada Pinkett Smith is the one who almost steals the entire film out from under everybody. She plays Roma, an MC at a stripper club for women of colour that Mike used to dance at. She exudes confidence, she calls her enraptured audience members “queens” and treats them as such, she sends some of her most beautiful black men after plus-sized women because she knows that they are just as deserving of this treatment as everyone else is, she can reign the bros in but she’s not humourless, she’s bisexual but the film does not make a big deal out of it, she grabs ahold of that microphone and introduces each and every man with the exact kind of showmanship required, and she oozes so much charm that I was practically seconds away from shouting back at the screen, “Yes, you wonderful and amazing woman! Thank you for these gifts from above!”
Look… I could sit here and lie to you all that I love this film for its forward-thinking attitudes towards the business of stripping, for its naturalistic but incredibly funny dialogue, for its unwavering commitment to shooting its male cast and the entire film in the female and homosexual gaze for once in this miserable patriarchal industry. I could sit here and lie about how the film’s lack of any real message or theme hurts it, how a runtime just shy of two hours makes the whole experience drag, and how its insistence on giving women what it thinks they want is just as condescending and insulting as it is desperately trying to not be. But I can’t do any of those things. Because they’re lies, and I can’t lie to you in a review, doing so defeats the entire concept of the form.
No, I love this film because Joe Mangianello’s super suggestive gas station number is set to “I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys and myself and my friend Lucy both collectively – along with the 8 people that were in our audience during out 11:30 on a Friday morning screening, oh how I wish I had gotten to see this film at night with a full crowd – lost our shit once the song started up. I love this film because Matt Bomer has the voice of an angel, the body of a Michelangelo sculpture, and eyes that make any human being Bomer-sexual through even just the tiniest of exposures, and this film utilises them for all that they’re worth. I love this movie because Channing Tatum can do things with his hips that make my hips do things of an entirely different nature.
And I do not feel ashamed about any of this. I know that I, as a film critic, am supposed to demand more from the cinema that is put in front of us for our consumption, for more than surface-level enjoyment and eye candy, and that loving this movie for those surface-level reasons risks making me a hypocrite, one of those “stop pandering, unless you’re pandering to me” kinda guys. But, well, isn’t this more? A mainstream Hollywood movie made within the studio system that treats women respectfully, is embracing and loving of the stripping profession, and takes great pleasure in objectifying the everloving fuck out of some gorgeous guys for the sole and purposeful entertainment of straight women, gay men, and bisexuals the world over? Can we get any more than this? Doesn’t that make Magic Mike XXL something special?
I don’t know. All I know is that I enjoyed every last second of this wonderful, glorious, beautiful thing, that I needed a cold shower afterwards, and that, barring a second half that somehow just shits out solid gold week in week out, this will be on my Top 10 Films of 2015 come the end of December, and it will be very, very high. And it will be because really, really ridiculously good-looking men spent roughly 115 minutes gyrating for my personal enjoyment.
Callum Petch needs a roughneck brother that can satisfy him. Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!