Girls Trip (2017)

In a summer when many comedies fell flat & promptly disappeared, Girls Trip excelled as a surprise runaway success lingering in theaters for months longer than its closest competition (Rough Night, Fun Mom Dinner, etc.). It’s not at all difficult to see why the film would carry a wide appeal & resulting financial success. As a star-studded broad comedy (featuring heavy hitters Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Queen Latifah among pop music celebrity cameos from performers like P. Diddy & Estelle) that caters directly to black audiences, Girls Trip taps directly into a criminally underserved market desperate to see its POV properly represented on the big screen. In a more idiosyncratic sense, it also cast an impossibly wide net in terms of tone. Girls Trip is an unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. It’s also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of its Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy that’s bound to grab the attention of anyone within earshot. Very rarely is something with commercial appeal this vast is so energetically strange & memorable for its grand scale acts of depravity.

The four leads of this corny/raunchy comedy feel as if they were grown in a lab to appeal to every quadrant of middle aged women in 2010s America. Queen Latifah is a skilled journalist whose talents are going to waste writing click bait hit pieces on celebrity gossip. Regina Hall is billed as the second coming of Oprah, a successful woman who seemingly Has It All in public, but struggles to keep her family together in private. Tiffany Haddish is a nuclear element of chaos, an overgrown childhood id in an adult woman’s body. Jada Pinkett-Smith is an uptight Party Mom, a “nurturer”, which is in direct contrast to her real life persona fronting a nu-metal band (!) & raising America’s most adorable space aliens. Self-described as The Flossy Posse, this meticulously crafted crew reunites after their post-college fall-out for an extravagant trip to New Orleans, where they attend Essence Fest & generally raise hell. Half the plot concerns mending emotional wounds between Latifah & Hall’s estranged besties as they try to save face in discussions of their personal lives. The other half is a group-wide mission to get Pinkett Smith’s hopelessly milquetoast Mother archetype laid. Haddish operates entirely outside either concern, ensuring the film’s immortality in her Freddy Got Fingered levels of depravity. Haddish’s lengthy tangents about ripping men’s hearts out & storing drugs in her “bootyhole” are paired with acts of mimed fellatio & a firehose of sprayed urine to completely pervert & subvert all of the film’s more heartfelt reflections on betrayal, reconciliation, and True Friendship. Haddish is not the only Flossy Posse member with blue material; every character gets their fair share of one-liners about giant dicks, camel toe, etc. Her performance just pushes the material into all-timer territory in its commitment to depravity & its freedom to exist outside concerns of realism or grounding melodrama.

New Orleans is the perfect backdrop for these sordid/maudlin shenanigans, but I have to admit I was often distracted by the way my city was depicted onscreen. The laws of movie magic dictate that I cannot nitpick the logic of the Hotel Monteleone’s carousel bar being near-empty on a festival weekend, the convenience of cabs & hotel rooms opening out of nowhere, the inhuman ability for the Flossy Posse to down consecutive Hand Grenades™ without exploding into piles of vomit, or the lunacy of a character having their morning coffee at the Topical Isle daiquiri chain. I can let these minuscule details go. The sanitized amusement park look of America’s infected bootyhole, Bourbon Street, was laughably unrealistic, however, and as a local it’s always sad to see one of the most vital, dynamic cultures on the planet reduced to off-season Mardi Gras beads & public flashing. From a tourist’s perspective, this view of the city might right true, though. There’s genuine admiration for the city in the film’s loving shots of the Superdome and local music touches like a twerking-flavored bounce show or a brass band rendition of a Bill Withers classic. Essence Fest also plays a huge role in Girls Trip‘s basic appeal. Not only does it allow for pop music acts to break up more labored stretches of emotional conflict; it also leads to weird novelties like this being the only film you’re likely to ever see where Ava DuVernay & DJ Mannie Fresh are both featured in prominent cameos. On some level, Girls Trip works as a dual commercial both for New Orleans as a lawless playground and for Essence as a concert experience. I just hope that anyone who takes the bait is aware that they won’t have as effortless of a time with it as The Flossy Posse, even with Regina Hall money to throw around.

There are plenty of reasons why Girls Trip shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Besides its depiction of a pristine, non-existent New Orleans, the film is overlong, dramatically labored, and embarrassingly cheesy. You get a whopping taste of that cheese in its introductory stretch, which heavily features a lazily Photoshopped group portrait of The Flossy Posse standing in front of a green screen Superdome and (I kid you not) opens with a record scratch sound effect. It’s somehow easy to even be charmed by that opener, however, thanks to how a look back to the crew’s college days allows for open 90s nostalgia (a hot commodity right now, another reason why Latifah’s casting was perfectly calibrated). If Girls Trip is indeed a movie-by-committee proposition engineered to appeal to as many people as possible, I’ll admit I was not at all immune to its scheme. The film’s gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth plays directly to my raccoonish tastes. Even if the massive runtime or clueless sentimentality had entirely soured me, I still would have walked away a fan of Tiffany Haddish, whose Jerri Blank-esque presence elevates the material immeasurably. I wasn’t necessarily negative on the film’s emotionally manipulate half either, though. Not every story beat about motherhood anxiety or the struggle to maintain the integrity of Christian Faith & public brands did something for me, but the film’s overall celebration of female friendship is undeniably infectious. It may be a story that could have been told more honestly & more succinctly, but the way its genuine pathos is perverted by the chaos of bar fights, hallucination, and male frontal nudity made for a delightfully subversive summertime comedy. I just won’t shed a tear if Girls Trip 2 happens to be set in another city, so I can focus less on setting & more on whom the Flossy Posse is banging, pissing on, giving a sincere heart to heart to, etc.

-Brandon Ledet

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

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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.

-Brandon Ledet