We’re super psyched that regular guest writer AJ McKenna has reviewed Magic Mike XXL for us. She’s done a stellar job considering the movie sounds about as sexy as four day old mincemeat left in the sun. Now what film can we make her watch next…
Years ago, way back when I was still presenting as male, I had a partner who used to enjoy watching me get myself off. Magic Mike XXL – or more precisely one particular scene in Magic Mike XXL – reminded me of that relationship. It would be unfair to say the whole film did, because that relationship was long, deep, and satisfying, and Magic Mike XXL is none of those things.
Now, to begin with, I’m very aware that I am not the target audience for this film. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the male form: I may be somewhat biased toward female partners but there are guys I’ve had the hots for – some of whom have even been cis – although it’s fair to say that Channing Tatum has never really been one of them (I enjoyed his turn in Haywire, but that was mainly because Gina Carano beat the shit out of him in a diner). The fact remains this is a film aimed squarely at the straight, not queer, female gaze, with literally a five minute sop to the gay male audience shoehorned in near the start. It was a near-certainty I’d be underwhelmed by it.
So, as a control measure, I chose to see it at the Empire cinema in Newcastle’s Gate complex on a Saturday night, when the house was sure to be packed with gaggles of straight women whipped into a frenzy by the sight of the Tatum’s pecs. In this way, I reasoned, I could gauge the effectiveness of the film impartially: it might do nothing for me personally, but if every other woman in the cinema was screaming it would have to be considered a success. And was it?
Well, there was no screaming from the crowd. There wasn’t, to be honest, much of a crowd. There were perhaps twenty people scattered around the auditorium as I arrived, and I arrived during the adverts. Then a posse of nearly a dozen young women came and sat in the row behind me as the trailers ended. “Maybe I’m gonna need earplugs,” I thought, but despite an enthusiastic, “Here we fucking goooo!” from a woman to the right of the cinema as the film opened, any hopes this might be a Hunter Thompson-esque foray into gonzo film-reviewing were dashed: the Magic Mike XXL audience were entirely well-behaved. The only strong reaction the film drew was laughter at a joke about Andie Macdowell having a capacious vagina (yes, really) and an enraged, unfulfilled, I’ll-tell-you-when-I’ve-had-enough cry of ‘What!’ from one of the women in the row behind me when the film cut to the end credits. It wasn’t just me, then: Magic Mike XXL is not a big ride.
It’s usually best to let these things go, roll over, grab what sleep you can and not dissect them, but as your reviewer I’m denied that luxury. The original Magic Mike was a satisfying, critically well-received film: just what is it that makes today’s version so different, so unappealing? I’ve narrowed it down to a few things.
IT ISN’T XXL…
You can see why they went for this title for the sequel – South Park had already used ‘Bigger, Longer and Uncut’ fifteen years ago – but it’s demonstrably false advertising. Look, I know size doesn’t matter, obviously, but let’s get both films’ running times out on the table and see how they measure up. The original Magic Mike was 110 minutes long. The XXL version clocks in at 115 minutes – a whopping five extra minutes of running time. That isn’t extra-EXTRA-large in this girl’s book. They’ve clearly tried everything they can to extend the film, but for all the good it’s done them, they could have achieved the same effect with a little careful trimming,
…but it feels that way, for all the wrong reasons
Trimming being the operative word, because while this film isn’t much longer than the original it sure feels too fucking long. Partly this is because the makers of the film have opted to hang the plot on the most boring genre of all time, the road movie. Road movies always tend toward the episodic and, for me, they always have a big-ass lull towards the middle as you sit through stuff that happens between the characters being where they are at the start and where they need to be at the end. While not as egregious as some films in this regard (the Hobbit trilogy has roughly one-and-a-half films-worth of middle-of-movie lull), there is a long and uncomfortable period during which this film grinds away while you wait impatiently for the climax*.
* Are these sex puns okay, by the way? Are they alright? Too much? I don’t want to keep doing them if they aren’t doing anything for you. If they’re too much I’ll stop.
It’s a plotless mess
What plot there is in this film is as flimsy as a male entertainer’s pop-fastened pants. The movie opens with The Tatum being called back by the Boys for One Last Job. Just when he was out, they pull him back in: pretty much literally so, as a naked man grapples a besuited Tatum into a swimming pool during what he believes to be a wake for Matthew McConaughey’s character from the original (and there’s a red flag for you right there, folks: Matthew McConaughey refused to be in this film. Now look, I know the man can exercise a little more choice about roles since he started keeping his shirt on, but c’mon…).
The thing about One Last Job films is that there needs to be a big MacGuffin to tempt the hero back into the game. The problem is that in this film the MacGuffin is the plot. The Magnificent Strippers are riding again for…well, the sake of riding again tbqh. That’s it. No character dying of cancer that the others have to raise money for, no uptight parents that Tatum has to warn against putting Baby in a corner, no Evil Rival Strip Troupe that Channing and the Boys have to conquer in a thong-off in the final reel. What plot there is exists to bridge the gap between, and provide excuses for, stripping scenes. There is a genre of cinema which follows these conventions of course, and that’s porn – but Magic Mike XXL seems to have some kind of vague feeling that it shouldn’t be just an all-out pornfest because it keeps trying, bless it, to have a plot. There is a romance of sorts between the Tatum and Amber Heard (which has as its meet-cute a scene where she sees him pissing on the beach, which is probably a first), there is some meaningless crap about two characters starting an artisan frozen yoghurt business, there is a subplot about Joe Mangianello trying to find a woman with the ‘glass slipper’ vagina that will take his big dick – this is where Andie Macdowell’s big fanny comes in, and also a really massive case of Chekhov’s Gun FAIL because we never actually see the dick in question. You see what I mean about this film wanting so hard not to be porn?
It’s unsure of its identity
In fact, it seems unsure if it even wants to be erotica. There seem to be at least two films running in parallel here. One is a grimy, low-rent, The Wrestler-style story about how Mike and his buddies are basically losers redeemed by the chance to display their physical prowess in a debased, Low Culture setting. I actually enjoyed these parts of the film, and would have had a lot of time for it if it had gone in this direction. But the other part is a weird fantasy-world where male strippers exist solely for the purpose of making women feel they’re beautiful, and where Jada Pinkett Smith can run an exclusive, country-club style Palace of Pecs for women of colour to go and watch every conceivable type of black male body gyrate for their amusement as they hurl dollar bills around with the wild abandon of Scrooge McDuck after a pools win. While I was glad of Jada’s presence, (she basically pulls off a Joel Grey and walks away with the movie) they can’t both be true. The scenes of women basically ejaculating money – seriously, literal money shots – over the bodies of men in this film are like a metaphor (a metaphor in the sense of being exactly like) for what the studio were thinking when they commissioned this: the first, Soderbergh-directed Magic Mike absolutely killed at the box office, so let’s make a sequel and watch the Benjamins rain down! And clearly, in their quest to get those papers, the studio were willing to put this film through a fuckton of rewrites – but not enough to make it a coherent film.
Let’s…let’s remember the good times, eh?
For all its faults – and there are many more little annoyances I could go into – it seems churlish to totally rag on this film. There are some good things about it. The stripping, for example, is extremely professional. It didn’t do a great deal for me, but like I say, not the target audience etc etc (though, full disclosure, there was one bit of business with a bondage harness and Nine Inch Nails’ Closer which did get me hot). And there is the scene which reminded me of my ex, and her thing about watching. This occurs fairly early in the movie, during a scene in which Tatum is welding some furniture (yes, a Flashdance reference – this film is not subtle about its callbacks), hears one of his old stripping songs played on Spotify (well-subtle product placement there guys, A+), and dances to it. He’s fully clothed, but it’s one of the sexiest scenes in the film because he seems to be enjoying himself so much, bless him. It isn’t just that he dances well: he takes such delight in his body, in the sheer physical joy of movement – even movement as ludicrous as dry-humping a table while he drills it – that you can’t not enjoy it. Hell, the last time I enjoyed watching the Tatum that much, Gina Carano was choking him TFO. And that’s why I was reminded of my ex, because I could have happily watched Channing Tatum enjoy his body for – well, quite a long time tbqh, because since I started on the testosterone-blockers it takes me a lot longer to get off – but if I’d known that after that scene I was going to have to watch him discussing frozen yoghurt and Andie MacDowell’s love-tunnel, I might just have bailed at that point. If things peak that early, there’s no point in hanging round.
ABOUT THE WRITER: AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012. Her new show, Howl of the Bantee, is on at the Edinburgh Free Fringe 2015, dates listed here. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.