Movie review: “Magic Mike XXL”

I sort of liked the first MM movie—like most people, I was caught off-guard by the strangely wistful tone that it struck. It wasn’t dreary, exactly, but contemplative and a little sad: it was a Soderburgh movie. And while it got some things right (it wasn’t exactly contemptuous of female audiences, though it did tend to treat them like frenzied sharks), I felt stung by the way it set up Mike’s love interest as the one woman who disapproved of his stripping. I couldn’t understand why a movie calculated to cater to the female gaze was still selling the idea of a “good girl” being the kind of sexless, joyless prude who could watch Channing Tatum hump the floor (and my God, can Channing Tatum hump a floor, he is the living king of floor-humpage) and wrinkle her nose and declare it kinda gross and weird. The fact that Mike—a generally cheerful, happy-puppy guy—was drawn to her sour-lemon sex-negativity was baffling. I felt like I’d been invited to ogle and then obliquely scolded for enjoying myself, and I left with a bad taste in my mouth. When Magic Mike 2 came out, I told myself no way was I going to get sucked into another two-hour slut-shaming session disguised as a fun outing for book clubs and bachelorette parties.

And then the reviews started trickling in, and the word of mouth, and finally my friends started telling me that I had to see this movie, that it was way better than the first one, that things were totally different now. And I gotta say:

All of my friends who said that? You were 100% right.

Everything wrong with the first movie is gone. Everything right about the first movie, is better. This still feels like a real, lived-in world, a strip-mall’d, cheaply-stucco’d, Game Stop’d South cluttered with chain hotels and Waffle Houses. The “classy” establishments are a new money idea of what old money looks like, decked out in purple neon and wipe-clean banquettes. Everyone hustles, everyone has stripped, everyone has two side jobs and a nascent dream of selling an invention on HSN. People try to leave stripping and find that the legitimate work world offers an even worse deal; people come to stripping because they’ve tried and failed to be backup dancers or R & B artists or commercial actors.

And yet this isn’t a depressing “expose” of a gritty/seamy underbelly—everyone here is treated with a gentle, sympathetic eye. Friends tease each other about failed gigs and bad ideas, just like friends on any rung of the economic ladder. When Mike agrees to leave his fledgling furniture company for a few days to accompany his friends to a stripper convention in Tampa, he asks them to reassure him that it’s not a terrible idea. “Oh, this is a horrible idea,” they gleefully tell him, and just like that, the movie’s off and running—a familiar joyride in which your friends will pitch your cell phone out the car window because they want you to “be present”, everyone half-reluctantly parries each other into Molly (“OK, I know how the rest of today’s going to go,” Mike gripes before ruefully downing his), and objective disasters (crashing a Fro-Yo truck into a forest) become bonding moments. When the strippers get together with some drag queens on a beach to get high and chat about their various failed hustles, you don’t feel like you’ve stumbled into a confessional or an after-school special. You just feel like you’re shooting the shit with some friends about the worst jobs you ever had—albeit some really flaky friends, the ones who use the word “bro” a lot and think that Reiki is real. And when a new girl sidles up to Mike while he’s taking a piss on the beach, their wary back-and-forth feels both guarded and ticklish, like any flirtation between actual grownups. When he turns her down for a one-night stand, his explanation is stumblingly, drunkenly incoherent—but also gestures to a deeper amount of self-knowledge and dignity than I’ve ever seen a movie grant a stripper before.

And let’s talk about the stripping. I’ll be honest—male strippers are not really my thing. Besides not being particularly drawn to the uber-ripped body type, I don’t particularly dig thongs or oil or bowties or leather. But I DO like dance movies, and I like anything where women’s desires and sexuality are catered to instead of being ignored or disparaged. And holy mother of Christ, does this movie deliver. To start with, Channing Tatum is just a truly unbelievable dancer. He’s tight and contained and controlled, but he’s also got the mind-blowingly rare gift of making it look easy, like the music’s simply flowing through him as a conduit. It’s obvious that he’s worked in the strip industry; what’s less obvious is why he ever left. His body looks weightless—in the very first dance scene, when he’s just fucking around in his garage, dancing for nobody’s pleasure but his own, he muscles himself up and around a ceiling joist as lightly as if gravity had just been switched off, scooting from floor to wall to ceiling to drafting table without ever seeming to rest on any of them. Fred Astaire once reportedly said to Michael Jackson that both their dances came from an interior place of anger—watching Tatum, I see a comparable tightly coiled precision, but it doesn’t read as anger. It reads as pure joy.

Secondly, the movie’s treatment of human sexuality is pretty close to perfect. Fully half the cast of this movie (including the strippers) are non-white. Drag queens abound. Some women are really tall and flat-chested, and some are really big and curvy. Lots of people are overweight, older, leathery, imperfect. Some people are shy and some people are screaming with enthusiasm. And yet no one—customer, stripper, or otherwise–is portrayed as grotesque, disgusting, a visual joke. Everyone gets a chance at a grin and a laugh and some thrills. Everyone, in the end, gets some.

It might be the most democratic movie of the year.


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