Movie Review: Magic Mike XXL
By Ben Gruchow
July 7, 2015
2012’s Magic Mike was a fairly brilliant bait-and-switch: with trailers and promotion, the audience was primed for something akin to a gender-flipped version of 1995’s Showgirls: sweaty, disposable trash. The catch was that the movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh during a phase of his career that saw two elements surface repeatedly in his work: unforced naturalism and abject humanism. In Magic Mike, what audiences got was a character study that was mostly absent of actual sexuality, despite its many and elaborate set pieces centered around the subject. Like the director’s earlier Contagion, it demonstrated that the right filmmaking sensibility can elevate a narrative as old as the hills, and it was unexpectedly one of the better films of the year.
That Magic Mike XXL is a lesser film than its predecessor, lacking a clear arc for any of its characters and in possession of less thematic weight, is an observation intensely dependent on that context. Put another way: Soderbergh at coasting speed still brings considerably more to the table than what you’d expect from a major summer movie. This is, technically, not Soderbergh (the directing reins have been handed over to Gregory Jacobs) but he shot and edited the film, and the results bear his stylistic fingerprints. The story once again covers well-worn territory (this time, it’s the Road-Trip Movie crossed with The Big Competition), but it’s even more irrelevant to the proceedings than in the first film. The movie’s theme, which I can best read as, “Accomplishment and dignity are subjective and malleable rather than objective and static”, is both a fuzzier concept and grander in scope than the movie’s screenplay (written by Reid Carolin) really knows what to do with, and the movie just barely manages to put it across with enough focus to let it hang together. Until then, we’ve basically got a series of vignettes, ones that are more notable for their mood and temperament than any particular storytelling consequence.
This is where that context becomes all-important, because mood and temperament is something Magic Mike XXL conveys fantastically. If the movie doesn’t hit all of its bases on a narrative level, it knocks the ball out of the park when it comes to tone and visuals. It’s remarkably consistent with the first film in its sense of time and place, while covering physical territory that the first Magic Mike, bound mostly to a stage, couldn’t make room for.
The cinematography expands on the first film’s vocabulary admirably; an early scene between two of our main characters, set on a beach at night, utilizes light and dark in a gorgeous way that’s even more notable for how simple it is in concept. A later shot, containing nothing more complex than a character being introduced by walking through a doorway, is 10 seconds or so of perfect cinema that is achieved by nothing more than lighting and camera placement in exactly the right spot for proportion, balance, and depth. This is absolutely precise, confident filmmaking: the work of a technician who has nothing left to prove, and knows it.
The movie is at its most effective the more it trafficks in this kind of visual and rhythmic sense; buried here is a 90-minute version of Magic Mike XXL, disposed of everything but the byplay between the established characters and the set pieces, that’s as directly personal as anything else released this year. Those remaining 25 minutes can’t be ignored, though, and so we have several factors that sideline the movie’s story unnecessarily: Tatum’s protagonist, Mike Lane, is given a love interest with a fraction of the incident that the equivalent character in the first film had, and the resulting subplot is malnourished at best. There is a long scene late in the movie that could have accomplished its thematic goal in half the time it takes. It’s saved only by the magnetic presence of Andie MacDowell, managing to snatch successful feeling out of an implausibly-written character.
In contrast to this, and the main reason why most people will see Magic Mike XXL, are the strip routines and set pieces. There are more of them here, I believe, than in the first film, and they are by several degrees more elaborate. They are also much plainer in their ambitions; this still isn’t the exploitation film the trailers promise, but it lands closer than the original did. These sequences are impressive in their staging and timing, though, and the filmmakers don’t fix what wasn’t broken. The camera generally stays wide, and shots are held long enough to establish that neither stunt work nor effects were used. There is a greater emphasis on musicality and vocal work here; at their best, these routines would probably be enough to earn the movie a recommendation on their own. There’s an extended sequence in a Georgia mansion, functioning as a kind of private strip club, that represents the movie’s absolute peak in both the narrative and filmmaking sense. To see what’s accomplished here, and with the level of complexity involved and the amount of skill needed, is sort of stunning.
It’s also perhaps the most uninhibited, and Magic Mike XXL is notable for the way it depicts human sexuality through a lens that’s resolutely positive. Make no mistake, this movie earns its R rating; within that framework, though, the nature of the central occupation and its practices are presented as choices made by healthy individuals, rather than being symptomatic of a detriment or a character flaw.
This is a film that’s enjoyed in the moment. It doesn’t develop or conclude its theme as effectively, and it’s less interested in the intricacies or the politics of its world. For that, it’s still a confident and well-made piece of entertainment, put together by a storyteller who is able to convey his sensibility to the screen with clarity and purpose. That’s enough to put it in the upper echelon of this summer’s releases so far.