Let me preface this by giving a little bit of background.:
I went to go see the first Magic Mike opening night. I was skeptical, to say the least. Despite me being the correct age and gender for the demographic of a film such as Magic Mike, I don’t really go in for the whole male entertainer thing. I blame my parents, who are Catholic and Protestant by nurture and Midwestern by nature. As an only child, with no older sibling to show me the way, my upbringing was fairly tame. I legitimately watched Dirty Dancing for the dancing, not the dirty, and even by high school, a fully- clothed Justin Timberlake adorned my walls. To say that body image issues factored into my adolescence would be to really sell that phrase short, so the idea that there were people who could get paid for taking off their clothes was nearly as outlandish as getting asked to the prom by Matt Damon. The idea that a big-budget movie would put male dancers on a screen the size of a two-story building did not necessarily thrill me so much as give me pause.
When I showed up that night and the theater was filled with eager middle-aged clans of women, I grew even more wary. When two men calling themselves dancers, wearing no shirt under their leather vest and black pant ensemble entered the room to intro the movie, I had a mild panic attack. “Dear god,” I thought to myself “I don’t know what chosen name you like to go by, but if you make me sit through some sort of real-time strip show right now, I will actually curse you by all the names of gods and goddesses I can think of”. I checked for the exits quicker than I would have if there had been an actual fire. But luckily, those two men just made the Mom Clans hoot and the GIRLFRIEND gaggles holler and then the movie started.
I had reasoned with myself that, even if slightly uncomfortable with the subject matter, I could not fight the film’s pedigree. McConaughey was getting raves, and I, like many of my generation and the one immediately preceding and following, quote the name “Soderbergh” in the same way that other generations have thrown off “Coppola” or “Lumet”. I had to trust in the director, even if in my head, I’d already given this only a 50/50 chance of winning me over. I mean it was the story of Channing Tatum, as far as I was concerned. Could it really be great?
Well the answer to that was “Yes”. And so I should have never doubted in the ability of a sequel.
And yet there I sat on Magic Mike XXL’s opening weekend thinking, “hey dudes, lightning doesn’t strike twice. You got mostly lucky with the first one, but me throwing my hard-earned cash at your follow-up will be about as gratifying as making it rain on a man in spandex hot pants”. And yet, Magic Mike XXL was becoming the not-so-little movie that could. For a summer that included huge names, huge studios and even bigger sequels, Magic Mike was what everyone was talking about.
I had to see it for myself. So, at 10:30 am on it’s third week of release (which in movie years basically makes it practically middle-aged) I roped a friend into going. Because going to Magic Mike by yourself is basically the same as admitting that yes, you really ARE going to finish off that pre-mixed Margarita bottle in one sitting. But it’s a delicate balance. Going to see with MORE than one friend means you run the risk of turning into one of those groups of women who starts whistling at the screen without even realizing you’re doing such a thing. Never underestimate the power of the Estrogen+GroupThink equation.
So there we sat in the empty theater. One other older woman dropped in on the party (apparently, she’d ALREADY finished her Jimmy-Buffet-in-a-bottle) but was considerate enough to sit far enough away that we could all pretend there was no one else there.
And then, there he was, (Magic) Mike (Channing Tatum), contemplating a sunrise on a wooden swing at the beach. The last 3 years have not been the dance-less utopia he dreamed, but just how rough they’ve been we’ve yet to discover. Upon receiving a call from his former group mates about the demise of their leader, Dallas (McConaughey’s former alter-ego) Tatum heads to a sketchy hotel in Tampa (now living here I can assure you, there are several to pick from) for the funeral. Surprised to find that Dallas’ departure isn’t so much dear as metaphorical, Mike is asked to join his four friends and partners in dance on one last ride to a male stripper convention in South Carolina.
Somehow, the film manages to sell a convention of male entertainers as a plausible mcguffin, one in a long list of its major strengths. The fact that these conventions exist in someone’s version of the real world helps; but what would normally seem an outlandish destination, instead functions as a plot device that allows Mike to have his “Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in again” moment. Luckily for everyone in the audience, that moment is accompanied by the timeless classic “Pony” by Ginuwine. The smile and laugh at himself that Tatum gives during his Jennifer Beals send-up instantly sets the tone for the rest of the film. As has been proven time and again, Tatum is utterly charming. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that, perhaps despite, or perhaps IN SPITE of, the bumps and grinds, Channing Tatum displays as much joy floating over a table saw as Gene Kelly did while swinging around a lamppost. And his newly discovered joie de vivre is infectious.
And so it is he finds himself in the back of an artisanal fro-yo truck surrounded by his comrades who have only managed to pack Village People-style costumes and enough Ecstasy to keep the show rolling all the way to Charleston. What ensues is a story that, if Homer were alive now, would be written as “The Odyssey; or how aging male dancers come to terms with their mortality”. Each stop provides a different spotlight for a different player and it somehow all comes together, with the dance climax waiting in the wings, the big-number anchor that musicals have relied on since the dawn of time. The film manages to feel outlandish and segmenented without being unbelievable. It is, perhaps, convenient, but never forced. These characters are always authentic to themselves, perhaps archetypal, but never false.
In fact, there seems to be a genuine camaraderie among this group of men from the island of misfit boys, and that’s what makes almost every scene a delight. It seems that director, Gregory Jacobs, has benefitted from working so closely with the man who made all of Hollywood's A-Listers into BFFs in the Ocean's series. As is true with that series, in a lot of scenes that could easily qualify for douchebag-bro baiting, the writing is distinctly kind and polite. The kind of dialog from a time long ago when "guys" could still be "men". One of my favorite scenes is a “morning after” sequence in which the guys get details about Richie’s evening. “That amazing, beautiful woman was the one?!” says Mike, incredulous. “I’m just so happy for you man”. It’s a scene that is usually handled with “atta boys” and crude handshakes, but here is all southern gentleman. In the hands of this ensemble, it comes off as funny, and sweet and endearing.
There’s also a sense that this film and its makers, fully aware of the audience’s hesitation to believe in a sequel on this subject, are daring you to naysay once you see the finished product. When the boys dare Richie (Joe Manganiello) to make a dour-looking female clerk at a gas station smile, they’re really daring us NOT to smile. When they start playing Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way”, they show their hand, but you’ve already folded your cards and given in. The ridiculousness of the spouting water bottle isn’t so much gratuitous as hilarious. As a woman, you realize, you’re never in danger with these guys, they’re just goofballs who look good in g-strings. And this is, perhaps, the biggest piece of fiction that the movie is able to sell. Because the perception is that this is a film about men taking off their clothes, when what it’s really about is selling each audience member their specific flavor of artisanal man. It’s an undressed rom-com with at leastfive different choose-your-own endings for audience members who care to make the choice. If you’re into big and brutish with a heart of gold, there’s Tarzan (Kevin Nash). If you’re into sweet and sexy there’s Tito (Adam Rodriguez); leading-man good looks with a spiritual side there’s Ken (Matt Bomer); a man’s man who’s just looking for the one, there’s Richie (Manganiello) and then there’s the all around boy next door (WHO NEVER LIVES NEXT DOOR) with talent that not only could drop his drawers, but yours too, there’s Mike, and you know what? He is pretty magical.
By the time Jada Pinkett-Smith showed up, I was thinking “yes, you’re right Ms. Pinkett-Smith, I AM a queen” and by the time Donald Glover showed up, I decided I was way, WAY on board. These are two minor players, who, in combination with the other cameo appearances (Michael Strahan, Twitch from So You Think You Can Dance, Andie “Randy” McDowell and Elizabeth Banks) at least for me, MORE than made up for the lack of Mr. McConaughey.
I guess what I’m saying is the lack of intimidation, the acceptance of moderate inhibition and the reminder that there’s always one more chance to make sure something ends with a bang, makes Magic Mike XXL one of the most optimistic, fun movies this year. It’s about men and friendship and women and desire, and the tightrope that we all almost always have to walk in relationships. And it’s also a little bit about a sequined dong in your face, but all in good fun.
See it if you’re man enough, laugh at it if you’re woman enough.