Magic Mike is a phenomenal film. I find it weird that even today some people look at me like I’m crazy when I say that. I always considered it to be like this generation’s Saturday Night Fever. If you haven’t seen the film, you have this idea of what the movie is like based on its subject matter (Saturday Night Fever being the silly disco movie or Magic Mike being the silly stripper movie), when the films themselves are much darker and character-driven than expected. So, I found Magic Mike to be a particularly great surprise. Now there’s a sequel out, Magic Mike XXL with the cast and crew returning, though Steven Soderbergh is no longer the director this time around, those duties go to his longtime assistant director, Gregory Jacobs. Hopefully it won’t be what Staying Alive was for Saturday Night Fever.
After three years out being out of the game, Mike (Channing Tatum) joins the remaining members of Kings of Tampa, Ken (Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and Tito (Adam Rodríguez) to go on a road trip to give their final, show-stopping performance at a convention in Myrtle Beach. Yes, that is the plot. It’s paper-thin at best. In fact, the film is probably closer to what people expected the first one to be, but the best part is that Magic Mike XXL works so well despite that.
Part of the brilliance of Magic Mike XXL is its restrained and meditative storytelling. There is no competition at the convention, there’s not rival team for them to defeat, no grand stakes or big conflicts. “But isn’t that the root of all good drama” you say? Well, yes kind of, but what makes this special is that by in keeping with the 70’s era character-study elements that made the first one so unique, MMXXL manages to work as an ensemble character piece in which a group of guys whose conflicts are mostly internalized, explore, develop and grow over the course of the film through dialogue, actions and even their awesome dance routines. It’s a great film about characters and their ever-growing relationships. Expanding on the events and themes of the first film, you get to really know all the characters. You get a sense of who they are, where they came from, what they want to do with their lives, why they want to do that, and how their life led up to this particular point. It’s a film that loves all its characters, without an ounce of cynicism or irony holding it back, and this goes to not just the strippers, but the ladies they dance for as well.
And that leads me another thing I love about the film. MMXXL is easily one of the most humanist and sex-positive films to ever come out of mainstream Hollywood. One complaint that some people had with the first film was that it was a bit too serious for its own good and with not enough stripping, a complaint that I think is nonsense, but whatever. The interesting thing about this film is how it takes a lot of those complaints into consideration, but never feeling like it is just pandering. It does so by basically being all about giving people what they want, or as put plainly in the film, just making everyone happy. And I mean everyone; it treats the desires and fantasies of women of all size, shape, age, race, etc. with respect, as something that is important and meaningful without any judgement whatsoever. Everyone is beautiful and there is no reason why they can’t be happy for at least a moment. This is fairly blatantly presented with how Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) refers to all the women who enter her castle as “Queens.” It’s progressive in ways most movies are not, and it’s almost a profound piece of art because of it.
It also helps that it’s a very well-made film. Gregory Jacobs does good work as the director, and Steven Soderbergh’s touches are not lost since he is still a producer, director of photography and editor (with the latter two using his usual aliases Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively). The film is very well shot, tightly edited, the lighting is especially gorgeous. Each dance routine (and there are a bunch of them) are very well choreographed, and shot with the energy and propulsion of a classic Hollywood musical number. The acting is also pretty stellar, if appropriately understated for the most part. And it’s not just from the returning cast; newcomers like Jada Pinkett Smith, Amber Heard, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Glover, and Andie MacDowell do great work with their characters.
Magic Mike XXL is basically what you think it is, expect a lot better. I’m baffled that they managed to pull this off twice. Even if it’s not quite as heavy in its social realist themes as the first film, it manages to take a new direction with its storytelling that has just as much substance and thoughtfulness to it. It’s a great film about complex characters that uses subtlety and minimalism to present each of their journeys. It celebrates joy and empathy and sexuality in a way that is sexy without being trashy. It’s also really funny and effortlessly watchable in its brisk 115 minute runtime. MMXXL utilizes elements you would often find in arthouse films, but they are utilized in such an accessible way that makes you wonder why more big-budget movies don’t do it. Even if most people aren’t sure what to think of these movies now, I think this and the first will be remembered more fondly in the future when we can finally get past the fact that it’s a movie about male strippers without going crazy.