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Non-Review Review: Magic Mike XXL

Well, if you’re going to do a sequel, it’s not a bad bet to go bigger.

Magic Mike XXL is a film that knows exactly what its audience wants, making a point to emphasise that this same attribute is what makes the “male entertainers” at the heart of the film so special. At one point, young heart throb Ken serenades his audience with a D’Angelo’s Untitled (How Does It Feel?), perfectly setting for the tone. Magic Mike XXL knows what its viewers are demanding, and dedicates itself to shamelessly satisfying their needs. The audience wants more, and they get more.

The problem with Magic Mike XXL is that it goes just a little bit too big. Bigger is not always better, as “male entertainer” (“Big”) Dick Richie discovers, spending the entire movie searching for the metaphorical “glass slipper.” The original Magic Mike ran a little bit too long at ten minutes short of two hours. Magic Mike XXL extends that runtime by twenty minutes. The result is a film that feels rather bloated. The pacing could be tighter. Some trimming and cutting might have served the film well.

Nevertheless, Magic Mike XXL maintains a lot of the charm and positive energy that made the original such a surprise hit. There is nothing wrong with trying to please your audience, even if there is such a thing as too much teasing.

Is the magic back?

Is the magic back?

Magic Mike XXL knows you want it, but it isn’t going to give it up easy. The film is cannily structured as something of a flirtation, a long and drawn out tease that refuses to give up the goods until it knows that the audience is in it for the long haul. One of the film’s more interesting structural decisions is the decision to keep the audience in suspense, waiting quite a while to break out the goods. It is almost half an hour before our hunky bachelors take to a stage, and even then they keep their shirts on. Mike himself doesn’t take off his shirt until an hour into the film.

There is something quite seductive about this, with the film launching the same seductive technique that its characters employ against their own audiences. It is a technique that works, as the film attests. The film often seems to lean on the fourth wall; you get the sense the cast would burst out of the screen and dance through the cinema aisle if technology permitted it. Early in the film, Mike is working in his study as Ginuwine’s Pony comes on the radio. Mike raises his head to the camera and shakes it, reluctantly; he waits for the inevitable cheers of the audience to spur him to motion.

It is a very cute attitude on the part of the film, which is well aware of the demographic that it wants to serve. At one point, the gang’s attention turns to the success of the Twilight franchise, with the wise and considerate Tarzan observing that the generation of young female readers and movie-goers who grew up with Twilight have discovered that it is possible for mass media to appeal to them as well. Magic Mike XXL is just as much a summer blockbuster as Jurassic World or Terminator Genisys. It is just geared to a different audience.

In this context, all that flirtatious withholding makes sense. Channing Tatum’s remarkable abs are really Magic Mike XXL‘s answer to the original T. Rex in Jurassic World. Tatum’s abs are a treat for the audience that can be deployed with care and precision; the movie can build towards the reveal of those chiselled features, knowing that the audience will love every second of it. There is a great deal of skill and care in the construction of Magic Mike XXL, which takes the logic of those sorts of fan-pleasing films and applies them to a very different fanbase than most movies.

Sparks fly...

Sparks fly…

Magic Mike XXL is not subtle about all this. Half-way through the film, Mike hooks up with an old flame named Rome. Rome runs a rather exclusive establishment, but takes great care of her female patrons. She refers to them as “queens” and ensures that each and every one of them is pampered. During a car ride, Andre reflects that the women at the parties are seeking an escape from a culture that never seems too concerned about what women want. His observation is reinforced throughout the film, as the female characters reflect on their experiences with men.

The film never takes itself too seriously, but it argues that these “male entertainers” provide a suitable escapist fantasy for women who don’t have many other avenues. “In a way, we’re healers,” Andre asserts. The film pokes gentle fun at his new age idealism, but it seems to accept the broad point that he is making. In a way, Magic Mike XXL is rather shrewdly preempting any potential criticism of its portrayal of the industry and any accusations of a double standard by making gender a critical part of its world view.

Steven Soderbergh is not directing Magic Mike XXL. The prolific director seems to be adhering to the word of his retirement, if not quite the spirit. Gregory Jacobs is directing the film, with Soderbergh working as cinematographer – complimenting the director’s renewed passion for editing and other aspects of the film-making process. Whether as a result of Jacobs’ experience with Soderbergh or simply Soderbergh’s visual style, there is a sense of visual continuity between the two films.

In particular, Magic Mike XXL retains the sort of loose improvisational style of the original film. There is a lot of vibrancy in the film, populated with little details. At one point, a woman wearing a motorbike helmet wanders into a profound conversation about the state of affairs. She wanders around the room and jumps up and down on the bed as the characters converse around her. It is an odd touch, but one that does create an almost magical realist tone for the movie; there is a sense that this isn’t quite the normal world.

This is where the magic happens...

This is where the magic happens…

The decision to structure Magic Mike XXL as a road movie is quite a canny move. In a way, it feels like the most logical way to follow up on the success of Magic Mike. The film cannot quite repeat the same beats over again. It would seem to run somewhat counter to the core story of the original film. Magic Mike was a story about a stripper who didn’t want to be a stripper, and so Magic Mike XXL needs to find an excuse to bring him out of retirement. It also needs to do that in a way that Mike’s return to the industry does not inspire resentment or bitterness.

Mike was one of the best performers in the business, but he dreamt of getting out. As such, the original film was positioned as something of a “large big score” story that would allow Mike to retire with a loving girlfriend and a fledgling young business. It seemed highly unlikely that writer Reid Carolin and director Steven Soderbergh imagined the small male stripper movie as a franchise starter. The success of the original took a lot of pundits (inside and outside the industry) by surprise.

Magic Mike XXL needs to get Mike back into the game. It opens by taking away the comfortable status quo from the end of the original. His girlfriend is curiously absent, his business is struggling. At a crossroads, Mike finds himself teaming up with the old gang to embark on a road trip that will take them to the generic (and apparently “infamous”) “Stripper Convention.” Along the way, their stories intersect with those of others; some encounters are fleeting, some extended. All are meaningful.

Magic Mike XXL is never particularly interested in the destination. It is never made entirely clear how the stripping convention works. Are the gang competing for a prize? Are they simply hoping to earn a lot of money? Is there only one stripping convention in the entire United States? The movie is not even remotely bothered by these sorts of plot questions, because the stripping convention is simply an excuse to get the gang on the move. Once that happens, the story unfolds at its own pace.

Working it all out...

Working it all out…

The biggest problem with all this is a sense of bloat. The episodic adventures are charming and diverting in their own right, offering Magic Mike XXL a charming folksy feel as our heroes travel from place to place bringing smiles and joy as they go. However, some of the segments could be tightened, wandering occasionally into self-indulgence. Then again, what are sequels for if not a little self-indulgence? The film never drags to the point that it stalls, but it only occasionally feels like it is actually moving.

(The other weakness of the film is the complete absence of Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey’s delightfully sleazy MC “Dallas.” Much like the other two major characters who are not returning for the sequel, Dallas is written out rather bluntly. “He $#!?ing abandoned us, man!” one of the ensemble complains, explaining that Dallas has apparently gone global, taking the trip to Paris. Should McConaughey return to the franchise, we might expect a “Dallas Nights: Cite de la More!” spin-off. McConaughey leaves a void in the cast that none of the ensemble quite fill.)

There is also a sense that film is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to characterisation. The original Magic Mike suggested that the world of “male entertainment” was simply a stepping stone to something else for the characters. However, the need to keep the sequel relatively bubbly (while still featuring the requisite amount of stripping) means that Magic Mike XXL can hardly present the return to the business as a profound personal defeat for the characters.

As a result, the script makes the only logical decision it could in this situation – it insists that the best of all possible worlds is a world where the male entertainers get to combine their individual passions with their stripping. It is a very practical storytelling decision, even if it threatens to wander into self-parody at the climax. (The male ensemble act out their own personal crisis on stage; stripping as catharsis.) Then again, the film is so good-natured that it’s hard to frown too hard at the contrivance and incongruity.

Road trip...

Road trip…

Magic Mike XXL is a little indulgent and over-stuffed, but it’s charming enough to forgive its indiscretions.

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