I’ve long considered pro wrestling to be the hyper-masculine equivalent to the way femininity is vamped up in drag performances. Magic Mike XXL poses that male entertainment (read: male stripping) fills that role instead. As represented on the screen here, it’s a solidly convincing argument. Early in the film male strippers & drag queens meet eye to eye in a small dive bar where the male entertainment crew from the first Magic Mike film participate in a voguing contest hosted by a wonderful small-part drag queen MC named Ms Tori Snatch. This scene not only gives the world the wonderful gift of watching former pro wrestler/NWO member Kevin Nash attempt voguing (he at least gets the spirit down more than some of his buddies, even if he can’t move his lumbering body very well), but it also establishes a connection between drag & male entertainment as artforms. Although the strip routines at the big competition at the end of the movie feature a ludicrous amount of faux ejaculations & weightlifting human beings that you’re unlikely to see in a roadside drag show, that brand of cartoonishly gendered performance is not far from what Tori Snatch does for a living. It’s just at the opposite end of the spectrum.
This exploration of stripping as absurd gender performance is limited almost entirely to Magic Mike XXL‘s on-screen stripteases & the brief foray into voguing (although Channing Tatum’s titular protagonist does reveal that his drag queen name would be Clitoria Labia), though, so what of the rest of the film? Besides a couple refreshingly casual nods to a few characters’ bisexuality & some vague philosophising about male entertainment’s role as female worship & sexual healing, the film doesn’t have all too much on its pretty little mind. The first Magic Mike film was an existential, melancholy look at the personal lives of male entertainers that had a lot of devious fun clashing their gloomy off-the-clock behavior with the over-the-top escapism they delivered on stage. Magic Mike XXL, by contrast, is pure escapism. The sequel ditches its predecessor’s despondent character study in favor of an aging-boy-band-goes-on-a-road-trip slapstick comedy. The opening of the film revisits a little of Mike’s downtrodden attempts to escape The Life, but once he rejoins the fold & starts dancing again the film is essentially a long list of road trip gags that all land beautifully (when they aren’t interrupted by the film’s hot & heavy strip teases).
True to the film’s boy band dynamic, its narrative focus mostly distinguishing the individual personalities of Mike’s crew of stripper buddies. There’s the pretty boy mystic, the aging giant with an artist’s heart, the boytoy who’s looking to shed his casual sex life in favor of a longterm relationship, etc., all for you to fawn over while they remove clothing from their shaved & oiled bodies. Magic Mike XXL only loses its spark when it strays from detailing the quirks of its all-growed-up boy band heart throbs & tries to find women for them to love. A lot of the heart of the first film was wrapped up in finding a budding romance for Mike, but the idea of repeating that process for the sequel isn’t exactly an enticing one. The love interest angle of XXL is treated like a necessary evil that the movie attempts to downplay at every turn. Mike’s potential partner is an unlikeable Ke$ha type who fancies herself an important artist too wrapped up in herself to engage with the oustide world in an interesting way. She’s self-absorbed, too young & too naive for Mike, and “not going through a boy phase right now” anyway, so her role as the generic Love Interest #2 is significantly downplayed, but it still feels like a waste of the movie’s time. Brief turns as potential love interests from Jada Pinkett Smith & Andie MacDowell (whose Georgian accent is so bad here that she uses the phrase “you guys” instead of “y’all”) fare a little better than Ke$ha the Self-Important Photographer, but they don’t make much of an impression either. The best XXL has to offer story-wise is as a goofy roadtrip movie about a ludicrous group of male entertainment buddies each finding themselves & bringing their true natures into their acts instead of emptily filling the Village People type of stripper roles like fireman in a thong, policeman in a thong, etc.
Beyond the road-trip story, which survives on the strength of its individual gags, Magic Mike XXL‘s greatest asset is its intense imagery. It’s totally understandable that a franchise about male strippers often gets overlooked for the quality of its cinematography, but it’s still a shame. Certain images (like a BDSM-themed strip tease set to Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” & a surreal tour through Jada Pinkett Smith’s dream-logic sex mansion) are just as striking as anything you’d find in a well-crafted art film, but still feel comfortably at home in this over-sexed road-trip buddy comedy. Magic Mike XXL is an impressive melding of the high & low brow, engaging both in its wealth of comedic & over-sexed surface pleasures & in its intense visual palette & light philosophising on the nature of gender performance & sexual healing in male entertainment. It’s difficult to say whether or not it’s a better film than the first, but it’s undeniably more fun.