Why ‘Magic Mike XXL’ Is Summer’s Most Subversive Studio Pleasure

REARVIEW: This gratifyingly inclusive sequel is the rare Hollywood picture to put the spectacle of female desire front and center.

Magic Mike XXL
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“My gaze was being so constantly serviced,” observed my fellow critic Catherine Bray, giddy with delight after seeing “Magic Mike XXL,” the amped-up, dressed-down follow-up to Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 male-stripper study. “Is that what it’s like to be a straight man looking at most media? No wonder so many of them are resistant to changing that.”

It may be cheating a bit to begin an opinion piece with someone else’s opinion, but it’s hard to state much more succinctly than that what feels at once so disarming and disorienting about “XXL,” the rare mainstream sequel that not only matches the quality of its accomplished predecessor but emphatically doesn’t match its tone, shape or perspective. Soderbergh’s film, in addition to being a pithy, pointed snapshot of life in a sunken economy, was a witty dissection of the American male psychology in the 21st century, and the vanities and insecurities that hold it together in the face of waning authority.

The sequel — quite distinctively shot and cut by Soderbergh, though helmed by his longtime a.d. Gregory Jacobs — was made with the knowledge that the socioeconomic needle hasn’t shifted enough in three years to prompt a reinvestigation of its principals’ pretty, not-necessarily-empty heads. Instead, “XXL” lays its still-roiling bro issues to one side for the night, casts its view outward to the female-dominated audience within and beyond the reaches of the frame, and asks what it can do for them. The message got through loud and clear, it seems. Box office reports state that an astonishing 96% of the film’s opening weekend audience was female; the chromosomes cleverly nestled in that title don’t lie. What looked to be one of the season’s more self-assembling cash-ins, then, might instead be the most subversive studio movie of the summer — raucously, thoughtfully about women even when it’s ostensibly about men.

“Pleasure” is a word that was bandied around a lot in reviews of “Magic Mike XXL” last week. Not just about the film itself, though it certainly applies: More overtly comic and spectacle-driven than its predecessor, with nary a hint of sturm und drang to interrupt the good vibes, it’s as uncompromised an entertainment as any on the multiplex menu. That’s not to call it dim or unconsidered, however, as Jacobs, Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin have thought long and hard about what pleasure constitutes for both their characters and their viewers. Channing Tatum’s Mike and his crew proudly label themselves not dancers but “male entertainers”: Performing is a rush for them, but so is the process of actively pleasuring their admirers, in routines that frequently border on simulated intercourse. The fevered, reciprocal ecstasy felt by that audience, meanwhile, is no less palpable in the film, as Soderbergh’s agile digital camera reverses perspective to show us the boys through their eyes; in key performance setpieces, gooseflesh-inducing sound design swamps us with the fuzzy mania of mass appreciation.

How often has the female libido — not to mention the gay male one, also given a welcoming wink and wiggle in an early drag-club sequence — been quite so generously addressed in mainstream American cinema? Certainly not in the romantic comedies and starry-eyed young adult fantasies that dominate Hollywood’s current allocation of “women’s pictures,” both of which push largely sexless notions of personal bliss. Not even in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s underappreciated “Fifty Shades of Grey,” where every orgasm comes with a line of bitter moral conflict, as its heroine accepts pleasure in lieu of emotional intimacy — even if, as in “Magic Mike XXL,” erotic stimulation is presented very much as a two-way street.

Love and physical desire in Jacobs’ film are only mutually exclusive if the women involved wish it so. Cue a scintillating yet wholly clothed dialogue scene at the film’s midpoint, where a middle-aged divorcee (Andie MacDowell, fiercer than she’s been on screen in the 26 years since her previous Soderbergh collaboration, “sex, lies and videotape”) seduces Joe Manganiello’s bluntly named Big Dick Richie with her own forthright carnal confessions. “Two beautiful daughters and only one penis my whole life,” is how she purringly describes the legacy of her failed marriage, to murmurs of empathy from her girlfriends. She’s not out for a second stab at Happily Ever After, even if her story concludes with a filthy riff on Cinderella’s “glass slipper” resolution; one night of untrammeled, unconditional pleasure suits her just fine. Big Dick is only too happy to listen and oblige, without judgment or consequence. So, by extension, is the movie.

The female perspective is not a minority one, of course, even if today’s cultural output often leads to it being described in such terms. “Magic Mike XXL” cannily elevates that point of view without isolating it. Male and female desire aren’t locked in a hackneyed battle of the sexes; rather, they’re symbiotic, dependent on each other for complete sexual release. As in “Mad Max: Fury Road” — with which “XXL” would make an unexpectedly illuminating double bill, and not just because they’re the summer’s two best wide releases by a country mile — it’s gender parity, not a turning of the tables, that is the objective here. The sexes mutually achieve their aims through communication and physical collaboration; in Jacobs’ film, men and women alike are aroused by arousal.

The leveling doesn’t end there. As Variety‘s Peter Debruge pointed out in his own review, “XXL” casually co-opts the perspectives of other demographics routinely neglected by mainstream cinema. The aforementioned drag sequence, in which Mike’s nominally straight crew put on a lighthearted display of vogueing and shimmying for a gleeful gay crowd, isn’t played as farce or burlesque. A wholly voluntary and spontaneous act (in a club, it bears mentioning, that they choose to frequent), it’s merely a sincere extension of their vocation to entertain.

Pleasure doesn’t discriminate in “Magic Mike XXL,” even if it occasionally self-segregates: In the film’s most daring, vividly realized setpiece, the boys visit an elite venue run by Mike’s old flame Rome (a delicious Jada Pinkett Smith), where a mostly African-American clientele is steamily serviced by an all-black band of dancers. Soderbergh shoots this extended, ecstatic tour with a degree of sensual scrutiny that all but leaves sweat patches on the screen, highlighting heaving expanses of exquisite, aubergine-dark skin in glorifying pools of crimson light. (Soderbergh’s supposed retirement from feature film directing may yet be the cinematography world’s gain: Not since “Solaris” has he pointed his camera with such precision and purpose in the service of beauty.) It’s a sequence quite unlikely any other in Hollywood cinema, reminiscent more of Gaspar Noe’s work in aesthetic and outlook — though it’s a much sexier, more surprising celebration of fleshly pleasures than anything in the Frenchman’s much-ballyhooed Cannes flub “Love.”

That’s a lot of words spent on the formal and textual marvels of “Magic Mike XXL,” and perhaps too few on the more conventional virtues that make it such a thrill all the same: the quick, gliding wit of Carolin’s dialogue, the hot, limber staging and choreography of the dance sequences themselves, and of course, the ever-evolving star quality of Channing Tatum — whose place among the most vital and versatile American actors of his generation can no longer be snidely denied.

“XXL” may boast several more elaborately conceived performance scenes, but its most purely electric is all Tatum. Wickedly lampooning Jennifer Beals in “Flashdance” — welding mask and all — Mike pulls a physics-defying series of solo moves in his carpentry workshop, hips in sync to the squelchy bump-and-grind of his signature jam, Ginuwine’s “Pony.” It’s the kind of routine for which the instructional cliche “dance like no one’s watching” was coined, but “Magic Mike XXL” has no time for that: It’s a film that knows full well we like to watch, taking and giving great joy in that assurance.