There comes a time when people ask, “Is this art or is this porn?” Depending on who you are talking to the answer can change and the definitions change. Art is about making you think and feel something and porn is supposed to be about pandering to you, but isn’t that just another way form of artistic engagement? Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s (Traffic, Erin Brokovich, Ocean’s Eleven) underrated drama Magic Mike is probably the biggest mainstream film to argue such a case. The original film used the indulgent setup of the world of male “adult-entertainers” (strippers) for a downbeat fall-from-grace versus re-invention saga. Magic Mike XXL, on the other hand is a straight-up road comedy that’s far less concerned with the surely-true seediness that grips the adult entertainment industry, and instead focuses on the most constructive side of what “male entertainers” and the like offer. In switching genres and the mission statement, the film becomes a surprisingly layered spectacle that is at once pure unadulterated indulgence (for the crowd who loves physically gifted half-naked men showing off), and at the same time a nuanced look right into the heart of woman-loving sex positivity. All the while the movie still functions as a rather earnest and frank portrait of male friendship in a way that Entourage forgot how to do rather quickly. We live in a world where “bros before hos” is antiquated at best and “#NotAllMen” is a thing, Magic Mike XXL dares to boldly position a present or future where us guys can still be guys (frat humor, party shenanigans, obsessed w/ food, sports and picking up chicks/getting laid etc) while still treating everybody with pure and sincere kindness and respect. It’s a smart “bro comedy” designed to be a safe space for the titillation of its intended audience (primarily women).
The story can be summed up like this: former stripper Mike “Magic Mike” Lane (Channing Tatum) has rejoined the “Kings of Tampa” (his former co-workers/friends) on “One Last Ride” aka their annual road trip to the fabled Stripper Convention in Myrtle Beach. Hilarity ensues! The film is as magical as the title suggests because it manages to work even without any external conflict or real story. We get to spend a lot of time with Tatum and the guys (Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez etc) and they all have their own character arcs and personalities sketched impeccably throughout the movie. Ultimately, the film’s journey is a microcosm tour of sexual empowerment itself; using each impressive dance sequence to highlight a new issue or perspective, whether it is LGBTQ comfort, the mere pursuit of laughter, transcending racial divides and even highlighting camaraderie among guy friends. And each character is on a journey to turn their trade/gimmick into direct and creative expressions of their own true selves in a way that provides mutual joy to all. And rather than compete in the name of self-interested triumph, every single moment is an attempt to show the ways people can come together (pun intended). The entire dance-heavy finale is about the joys of sharing space, talent, but even love that although created as a fantasy, is still every bit as sincere and true in its own way.
That’s what really works for this movie: sincerity. And that’s ultimately what it’s about. The male stripper characters aren’t just good because they are incredibly fit, traditionally handsome and can dance; they are good because past all the internal drama they face they still genuinely care about making the day brighter for everyone around them. The film believes the key to being a real playboy isn’t just receiving the love and adoration of countless women: it’s giving that same unconditional love and adoration back to ALL women AND absolutely meaning it. There’s not a single cynical beat in this movie and every character feels real and while not exactly complex, they are fleshed out (lol) enough to be engaging even to someone like me who has less than zero interest in sexualized men. I was engaged not because I could directly relate to the characters but listening to the dialogue and seeing their interactions reminded me more about my friends and I than most modern movies about guy friendships outside of Superbad. There are whole incredibly funny scenes that I guarantee every guy has or at least has a friend who has that story. And everything leads into this call, to the utmost regard for women’s right to sexuality and a full-on understanding of these particular male entertainers’ “healer” dynamic at that. The movie both knows how ridiculous that sounds yet it still supports this sentiment completely: the movie argues that we need to be better, more attentive and selfless men. And it’s all contextualized by their relationship with the women in the film (and their lives).
Jada Pinkett, Amber Heard and Andie MacDowell each plays very different women and are every bit as important to Magic Mike XXL as Charlize Theron, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley etc were to Mad Max: Fury Road which means they are essential to the movie. Pinkett’s “Rome” is a no-nonsense entrepreneur, Mike’s former flame/mentor, she’s an MC who now owns an exclusive club for women and she gets what indulgence’s place in our society is all about. Addressing every patron around her as “Queens” she takes the stand that some forms of entertainment are all about making people feel special and wanted, and that can be as enriching as any other art. She practically steals the movie in some scenes. Andie MacDowell as an old money wealthy divorcee re-enforces that sentiment while also providing a vignette that shows the importance of gentlemanly sincerity from the Manganiello character. Amber Heard plays a heartbroken former female stripper and may be the point of contention for the movie as her more serious plotline seems removed from the general levity of the film but it serves the purpose of showing the negative effect of one-sided indulgence. Her scenes with Tatum often have the two draped in shadows as if forcing the two to bond without the handicap of physical attraction. It should be noted that the background women characters, all of whom are of different ages, ethnicity, some traditionally attractive, some traditionally unattractive etc (seriously the extras are some of the most diverse groups of women put to screen ever) even get to play a role in the film not just as voyeurs or objects but as participants in this journey to re-define male/female sex-positive dynamics.
Magic Mike XXL is the Guys and Dolls (1955) of our generation. It’s as if master filmmakers (Soderbergh acts as co-writer w/ his wife, director of photography and editor while his protégé directs) made indulgent (porn) sex & women positive entertainment with the MDMA-fueled heart of a “Bro” or “Frat” comedy. It’s a call to arms about how we might have too many films about what’s “wrong” with sexuality (particularly that of women and LGBTQ) and need to start setting some sex-positive examples. It’s also a call for us men to step up our game and not necessarily get buff or learn to dance, but stop being so selfish when it comes to the pleasures of life and respect the women in our lives and around us “#YesAllWomen.”