The 88th Academy Awards will be held on February 28, 2016. Honoring many of the best American films of 2015, it therefore follows that the Brattle is taking time out of Oscar weekend to screen the best American film of the year, MAGIC MIKE XXL. Gregory Jacobs’s film is the artfully shameless sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s (who serves as XXL’s editor/cinematographer) 2012 clever wrapping of a male stripper movie around a recession-era cautionary tale about young people trying to sort their lives out. You can applaud Soderbergh’s film for its intelligence and even-handed approach to the world it depicts, but in the overwhelming warmth and celebration of love, both of the friendship and physical kind, I find that MAGIC MIKE XXL is the movie I wanted MAGIC MIKE to be.
For a certain strain of critic, this was made to set their heart aflutter, despite having all the hallmarks of a studio product which begs to be written off as crass and compromised. The film hits all of those marks in a cannily tasteful way and to such an extent that its characters’ relentless affirmation of sex and illicit pleasure comes full circle through pandering titillation and into a thematically-consistent, uplifting artistic treatise on those very subjects. This kind of paradoxical approach, of course, courts praise from many critics. How its characters interact with one another and express the ideas that anchor the film, should delight audiences in ways arthouse audiences have forgotten in this age of decrepit, dull studio filmmaking (the multiplex audiences, even more so.)
Before getting in to how MAGIC MIKE XXL accomplishes this, at least a paragraph is due for Channing Tatum. I’m pretty sure I saw Step Up on a plane, so my apologies to the legions of young fans he gained with that and to the people on that flight, but the world is only now getting hip to Tatum’s game. He’s got the body for the job, clearly, and a sense of camp and humor that comes from a humble man’s life spent on stage. But when the honest characterizations and carefully considered sexual positivity of the MAGIC MIKEs (especially the second one) factor in, Tatum’s character becomes a performance other great actors could scarcely improve upon. Imagine DiCaprio trying to sell the line “My God is a she.” He couldn’t, of course, because his God is a lumbering, dick-swinging brute (himself.) You get the sense that Tatum has earnestness into those words, albeit with a sense of knowing playfulness that never seems to leave his public persona. His irreverent turns in the most recent Tarantino and Coen Brothers films reinforce that, giving of much more of an impression of a game fellow than his slogs through earlier, worse material indicated. The new roles have retroactively given him “real actor” cred, but the semi-autobiographical MAGIC MIKE series predates them with a perfect marriage of actor and material, such that his contributions to the authorship of the film beyond the literal writing can be compared on the level of MAGIC MIKE directors.
I am not the first to note that Tatum’s presence in and authorship of the MAGIC MIKEs resembles Gene Kelly, another limber strongman who lent his face and creative vision to many of the Hollywood musical’s greatest triumphs. With the limited knowledge of (and zero propensity for) dancing that I have, I can at least say the cinematic impression of their dancing is one of heaviness contrasted against fluidity as they shift their bodies around the space. And MAGIC MIKE XXL bears some of the same joys and thematic concerns as even a SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, although its true spiritual precursors may be the more innuendo-laced musicals and comedies of the early 1930s. Either way, there’s no denying, hard-hearted as some viewers may be, that moments like the “Pony” dance sequence and that scene in the convenience store offer more than a passing resemblance to the musical, a genre nigh on dead in these cinematic times.
Indeed, the film is about the performer breathing life back into spectacle, the process of personal discovery required to put on a good show, and how that discovery demands easygoing openness to the relationships one creates and cultivates, both sexual and social. The internal drama between conflict and relaxation expressed most concisely in the first – and best – musical number of the film, where Channing Tatum’s Mike is consumed by the urge to dance while doing some metalwork for the small business he thought would help define him. As Ginuwine’s wonderful “Pony” plays on his Spotify, Mike choreographs his work as an erotic dance, before giving way fully to jumping around his workshop. Wearing a symbolic welder’s mask, his dance/work gives off intense sexual energy to go along with evocative sparks and expose the literal friction between his chosen identities of stripper and small business owner. So convincing was Mike’s impromptu performance (and so perfectly placed was the camera to capture this scene,) he knows his heart and body belong in the stripping game. So do we.
The film takes as its starting point the whittled old devices of getting the gang back together for the archetypal one last ride. But the film is always so in touch with its characters that it never falls back on these tropes, using them instead as a springboard to dive away from plot, towards a sensuous treatment of each passing moment and an affirmation of each character’s sexual personhood. The plot, and intense seriousness that comes with plotting, are dissolved in each passing scene. Take the initial reunion of Channing Tatum with his stripper crew, in which he shows up expecting a funeral based on a misleading phone call, and arrives instead at a raucous hotel party to be thrown, suit and all, into a swimming pool. No funerals here. And if your suit’s ruined, let it go. Your friends needed to see you, and that was their way of saying hello.
From this point on, the film – along with the characters’ demeanor, gets progressively looser and funnier. There are emotional moments, sure, but nothing remotely lugubrious. Instead, each beat of drama is resolved faster than it can register an impact. After all, the central drama of the film is the conflict between conflict and acceptance, and, in a way that outdoes the clean breaks Hollywood films often abuse, every dramatic moment, every unfulfilled yearning of a character, every connection formed in the film is resolved with emphatic certainty. As Mike’s fiancée leaving him or the open ended promise of the future at the end of the film indicates, things are far from resolved for Mike and those he shares his life with. Yet, the catharsis that comes with Mike and the band’s stripping performances and sexual escapades, is one of forming an authentic self, and settling into a groove of bettering their lives. If this sounds like banal self-help platitudes, good, brazen acceptance and reinvention of the cliché got the crew this far. The film signs off on our band of heroes watching fireworks – having won no competition in particular – set to a DJ Khaled party anthem. We don’t watch the fireworks though, we watch their faces lit up by the fireworks only they can see. The spectacle through the film has shone a light on who they really are, and given them the ability to go forward on into the rest of their lives. Magic Mike and his confidants are up for no Oscars on February 28, but all they’ll do is win, no matter what.