Magic Mike XXL
2015 • 115 minutes • Warner Bros.
It’s true! It’s true! Everything Our Lady of Celebrity Gossip Anne Helen Petersen says about Magic Mike XXL is breathtakingly true. Not that I would ever doubt Our Lady of Celebrity Gossip, but I remain firmly suspicious of mainstream Hollywood at all times, especially when it comes to feminist credentials.
That truth? That Magic Mike XXL is a sun-soaked, beautifully shot hangout movie that replaces any silly ideas about a plot with vocally and visually centering and emphasizing (straight and male-attracted) female desire at every single opportunity. And elaborately choreographed stripping numbers. If Magic Mike was a understated film about a man coming into his own, Magic Mike XXL is practically a musical.
Like any musical, the plot is really only there to get the characters moving from set piece to set piece. Channing Tatum has described the film as “a stripper odyssey,” which isn’t a half-bad description (although, blissfully, there’s no Penelope fighting off suitors back home). After the events of Magic Mike XXL, the tattered remnants of the Kings of Tampa invite Mike to join them on a road trip to the delightfully untitled Stripper Convention in Myrtle Beach. After a little consideration, Mike happily hops onto the frozen yogurt party food truck and off they go, leaving torn tank tops and happy women everywhere they go.
The film offers two fascinating theses—the first is the most obvious, that the best way to please a woman is by asking her what she wants. When I say this is emphasized repeatedly in the film, you do not understand how repeatedly. Women of every size, age, and color are shown enjoying the show, expressing their sexual desire, and having a blast. Even Andie McDowell’s Nancy, a woman who would be a “hilarious” cougar in so many other films, is treated as a queen. (When one of the strippers hooks with her, we only see him talk to his buddies instead of the post-coitus, and Mike literally refers to her as “that nice, beautiful woman” before high-fiving his friend.) When car troubles bring them to Domina, the empire of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rome, they meet Andre. Andre, played by Donald Glover, is a performer Rome uses to make shy women happy—he improvises songs for them and treats them very gently. When he drives the crew to their next step, he and Ken have a conversation where he literally calls asking a woman what she wants a beautiful thing. Magic Mike XXL isn’t a suggestion for how straight men should treat their female lovers; it’s a how-to manual.
The second fascinating thesis is a very different definition of masculinity, where these uncontested bros never, for one instant, feel threatened by anyone’s display of their own gender. They go to a drag show (that they go to every year!), win a voguing competition, and spend the night drinking with the queens. Mike and Ken (Matt Bomer) sense negativity between the two of them, and they both work it out in their own way—Mike invites Ken to hit him with a stick to diffuse the tension, and Ken meditates on it. When tensions get high, Mike is the one to remind everyone that’s probably just because they’re coming off of molly and they should just chill. While at Domina, they’re not remotely threatened by the routines of Rome’s male strippers: they actively seek them out to talk to them about their craft. At one point, Mike slowly begins prodding at the idea of performative masculinity when he asks Richie about the latter’s firefighter routine. Richie does it because it kills, but he’s also afraid of fire. Eventually, as a group, they decide to literally throw the trappings of old-school masculinity out the window of the car. They cheer each other on (no more so in a convenience store scene that must be seen to be believed) and support each other to no end. It’s amazing.
All of this has been covered by writers better than I (see Anne Helen Petersen above). But one thing that I haven’t seen covered properly is Amber Heard’s Zoe, the closest thing the film has to a female lead. I have been baffled by how Zoe is compared to and even considered the replacement for Brooke, Mike’s girlfriend from the first film in a handful of reviews that I’ve read. (Brooke is not in this film, having turned down his marriage proposal. This never for an instant occurs as a reason to dislike women to Mike. Because he’s a good person.) If Zoe seems like a strange successor to the first film’s romantic interest, that’s because she’s not a romantic interest. She’s Mike’s friend.
That’s deeply important, because it shows that Mike—and his eponymous movie—is interested in making all women happy, not just women who are sexually attracted to him or that he’s sexually attracted to himself. When they first meet, Zoe invites him out on a midnight excursion to an island. Presuming that she’s propositioning him, Mike lets her down easy, only for Zoe to reassure him that she’s “not really in a guy phase” right now. When we meet Zoe again, she’s in a bad place, which Mike recognizes. He proposes that she head to the stripper convention, because male strippers cheer her up and, if they don’t, there’ll be plenty of girls there for her. Mike’s relationship with Zoe is the platonic ideal of what he and his crew do—they put smiles on women’s faces in empowering ways. Mike relates to Zoe (a former stripper who, importantly, we never see on the pole because it’s not a career she likes), offers his friendship gladly, and, at the climax of the film, takes time out of a meticulously choreographed and astonishing mirror number to goofily mime at her. All just because Zoe, like anyone else, deserves to be happy.
And that’s a beautiful thing.
(How many times have I said literally in this review? THE SUBTEXT IS TEXT, PEOPLE!)
I saw this film in theaters.