I have a testing process for movies. I’ve loved and been burned too many times by the hot new kid on the block (cough cough Avatar cough cough) to not have a buffer. My rating system is built on the principle that no film can get a 10/10 without watching it a second time. It gives me a chance to think about the film, what it means to me, whether what I saw was pure spectacle or pure genius. So around the end of every year, I start going through the films that I’ve loved in the previous 11 months and seeing if they hold up or not. One of the films that I did that with this year was the subject of this review, Magic Mike XXL, and my appreciation for the film has only increased on each viewing.To quote my initial review from August,
“Is this some unmitigated work of genius? No, not really. What it is though is the perfect execution of a concept. If you went into this expecting it to be what it looked like and anticipating enjoying it, I can’t see a single reason why you wouldn’t. This was one of my most anticipated summer movies and it did not disappoint. 4/5”
The more the movie sat with me over the next three months, the more I focused on everything after those first short sentences. Magic Mike XXL is a bloody entertaining film with a sweet and compelling story, incredible dance sequences and, at least, one performance (Jada Pinkett Smith – my favourite performance of 2015) that is really and truly awards worthy. As people started asking me about my favourite movies of the year this kept popping up as “one I enjoyed a lot” or “one that surprised me” and it was routinely a film I would recommend to people as being supremely entertaining.
So after I finished one of my big papers, I decided to give it a second viewing where I found something a little different. Where I had been amused by the glimmers of plot, this time, I saw real substance. Where before I had seen incredibly well-choreographed dance sequences, now I saw incredibly well-shot dance sequences. XXL went from being one of those genre films that’s entertaining but ultimately failing in transcendence to a film like Creed – succeeding on multiple viewings because it matches world-class technique with heart and passion.Then, less than two weeks later I showed it to my roommate, and the night after that we showed it to her friends, and at the end of that fourth viewing, I started thinking that this may be my favourite movie of 2015.
Then, less than two weeks later I showed it to my roommate, and the night after that we showed it to her friends, and at the end of that fourth viewing, I started thinking that this may be my favourite movie of 2015.So what makes it that good? Why does this film work so well on repeat viewings – getting better each time when so many sexy commercial films just fade away?
So what makes it that good? Why does this film work so well on repeat viewings – getting better each time when so many sexy commercial films just fade away?
Well, my best attempt at an answer comes in trying to analyze what exactly this film is since it’s not really what its critics see it as. People who really liked the first Magic Mike saw even the announcement of a sequel as gratuitous. Given that Soderbergh used the film as a way to explore the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and how desperate people can turn to sex work, I understand their frustration. The sequel appeared to be a cash grab with no artistic merit seeking to glorify what the first film was deriding.
But those of us who at least liked the film on a first viewing saw something different. While I didn’t hate the Entourage movie, this is what that film wanted to be. A fun ride following a bunch of male friends on some wacky adventures all the while learning a lesson on the way. More specifically this is a road movie that cares as much about what its characters are saying as what they can do with their bodies.
But I’ve seen XXL on more “Best of 2015” lists than I was expecting (11 as of right now on Metacritic), and it’s because many of us saw a lot more in this than just a simple road movie. Christopher Orr from The Atlantic called it “perhaps the most unexpectedly feminist film of the year.” Slant called it “one of the only truly transgressive Hollywood franchise installments in recent memory.” Variety describes it as “preoccupied with the politics of female desire.” And The New Republic listed it as one of the best films for female representation of the year.
All of that is true and more. During that mystical fourth viewing, I freaked out a little during one of the quiet moments because I could finally put my theory into words. What if this movie is about what it looks like to have a crisis of masculinity with men who, in their hearts, aren’t misogynists? We get a hint of this from the first (and really only) scene of nudity in the film early on.
A key sign of misogyny in bro culture is the “no homo” reaction – something this film has no hint of promoting. Another part of bro-culture that this film actively reacts against is the “violence to relieve tension” instinct. Immediately from Mike’s re-entrance to the group Ken is pissed about something – namely Mike leaving at the end of the first movie. So when they’re all huddled around the campfire Mike tells Ken to hit him and get it over with. He does and then immediately asks if Mike is okay because “No man, I don’t feel better. That was seriously fucked up.” While Tarzan says he enjoyed the whole thing, you don’t leave the scene feeling at ease. These guys were all talking about how their lives weren’t going how they’d imagined, and the first violent instinct did absolutely nothing to resolve the feeling of malaise.
From here on out, the characters have to be vulnerable to find themselves – leaving their comfort zones to find authenticity. The already infamous “I want it that way” scene is about Richie getting in touch with his passion for the romantic so he can get over the super macho fireman routine he had always been cast in.
The whole point of Mike’s character in the film is acknowledging that while having a steady job is comforting, you have to engage in your passions to live a full life. When he goes to ask an old friend for a favour, he doesn’t get that favour for free – he has to show that he’s invested and dedicated to her before she returns that dedication.
There’s a really cute scene where Andie MacDowell talks about how it’s better to play the field than settle down early – and Tarzan (rather Ernest, his real name) says that while he’s had a good run, he’d give it all up for a wife and child that love him. Later, he describes how he’s as nervous before going on at the convention as he was during Desert Storm.
And all of that is before we get to what is not only one of the greatest sequences in the history of musical filmmaking, but the point where the film really earns its feminist stripes – Rome’s place.
The first thing that stands out about this sequence is that every person in Rome’s place is a woman of colour and every man there is in the service of fulfilling their wildest desires. In each of the four strip shows we get here the women in the club are shown a different fantasy – a beast, a dancer, a singer, and white chocolate – each entirely dedicated to giving the women around them something they’ve never seen before even if they’ve always wanted to. It’s really a sight to behold, not just because the choreography is great and it’s shot really well, but because the entire sequence is positive and optimistic. There’s no shame in that house for the dancers or the women.
Which makes the next sequence at Andie MacDowell’s even more powerful. The women in the house are sharing stories about their (ex)husbands when the shy girl says she’s never made love with the lights on. Ken then gets all sweet telling her how beautiful she is on the inside and singing Bryan Adams “Heaven”. But the camera does something really interesting here. It shifts focus to one of the other women to show her flustered reactions to this sweet romantic scene. This scene, and most of the film is way more interested in the romantic sexual female gaze than anything else – setting itself apart from the first film which was more interested in waxing poetic about the economy than the stripping.
Magic Mike has no scenes that are really focused on the stripping and actually features a lot of women in (and out of) skimpy clothing. The cinematography in Magic Mike has no interest in the art and choreography of the stripping because it doesn’t see stripping or the desire to see stripping as legitimate. XXL is a completely different movie and is operating in a different genre than the original. Magic Mike is a realist drama with stripping montages, XXL is a musical fantasy stripping road trip. Both are good, but I’d rather watch XXL any day of the week because it is wildly more successful at what it’s trying to do than Magic Mike is. XXL has sequences, explicit and not, that are more sweet and touching and compelling and sexy than anything in the original film. I would recommend XXL to just about anyone because it’s great, thoughtful, pop, filmmaking, and yes, its one of the best films of 2015.