Magic Mike XXL is a film overflowing with life and positive energy. At it's core it is a road trip of friends getting together for one last hurrah, and those pockets of love that spread throughout a group of friends in doing a job. That work is specifically the business of male stripping or as the characters in this movie refer to themselves "male entertainment". Unlike the previous the film there isn't much cynicism to be found here and the camera shifts from the performers to the audience. When I saw Magic Mike with my girlfriends back in 2012 it was a bit of a letdown to everyone in my core group of friends except me, and it was because they were given a movie that didn't satisfy their needs as viewers. They came to watch a stripper movie, but what was delivered was a story about economy. Magic Mike XXL still features some of those same ideas, but they are appropriately slight and only mentioned offhand. The satisfaction of the viewer- specifically the heterosexual women in attendance- is paramount and a few scenes in the movie act as a fulcrum for the type of audience reaction Magic Mike XXL is trying to elicit.
"I bet you can go in there and make her day...That's your goal. Just go in there and make her smile"
Mike is persistent that the boys change up their routines as they head to Myrtle Beach to the World Summit of Male Stripping Contests, and Big Dick Ritchie is unsure if he should stop doing the fireman routine. He hates fire, the music he dances to, and everything else about the dance, but it works. So, Mike asks Ritchie if he's a fireman to which he replies "I'm a male entertainer" so Mike asks him to go into a gas station and make a girl smile. It's a test, but it also works as a barometer for where the movies heart is at. Magic Mike XXL consistently toes the line between the bro road trip movie and the filmic equivalent of an idea of female satisfaction. Women are first and foremost the #1 priority of the men, and I'll get into that more later, but this is a simple scene where one man dances for a one woman's approval. Approval, being a running theme in XXL.
There isn't a whole lot of room to play around with camera movement or an elaborate dance routine due to the confined nature of the aisles in the gas station, but graceful camerawork, editing, and image selection make the scene pop exactly the way it should. The scene begins with Ritchie being unsure of himself as The Backstreet Boys "I Want it that Way" begins to play over the radio station. Ritchie begins to sway his hips and ass in tune with the song to get her attention, but she's still preoccupied with her phone. The camera sweeps back down the aisle and when the songs first drums kick in Ritchie does a turn and pops open a bag of cheetoes all over the floor. There is a cut to his face and hers. The mess finally got her attention. She seems unamused, but Ritchie's going for it. At the very least he's livening up her mundane day. The scene follows Ritchie to a pepsi machine, and there's a subtle zoom on Mike and the boys cheering him on. This is his moment to really take a chance. He takes a water bottle out of the machine and simulates ejaculation with the bottle right when the song is hitting the biggest part of the chorus. Perfect. Ridiculous. His boys think this is BRILLIANT in all caps and Mike is screaming "yes! yes! yes!" outside as Ritchie dumps water all over himself. The camera follows Ritchie right back up the aisle as he takes his shirt off for the girl (who still appears unimpressed) and now he's as vulnerable as he can be, until he starts humping the floor. She stares down at him, he looks up into her eyes. Ritchie thinks he has things in the bag. This is what girls want right? He finally asks her how much for the cheetoes and water, and then she smiles. Mission Accomplished.
I love a handful of things about this scene, but especially the absurdity of the male idea of female sexuality. The biggest moment in this sequence is the simulated ejaculation. These guys can't stop thinking with their dicks. Mike and the rest of the crew lose their shit when he faux ejaculates in the gas station. She never smiles at this moment. She only smiles at his comment asking about the cheetoes and water, because it's so absurd and played straight. The sheer audacity of this guy to do all of this in her store is eventually what makes her crack, not the dancing. It also just barely opens the door for the sort of lengths they'll go to satisfy women in this movie, which remain pretty ridiculous.
Scene 2: Serenading a Queen
"Queens, ain't she beautiful?"
Magic Mike XXL is inspired in part by fourth wave feminism. Women are often referred to as "Queens" and each man in this movie seems like he reads the Critique My Dick Pick blog set up by @moscaddie. There is a softening of masculinity in each of the male characters here that shows masculinity not as something toxic, but vulnerable, nurturing and sensitive while still being hard enough to not make men lose what makes them so appealing. Andre (Childish Gambino-Donald Glover) raps about this. The very first thing Andre does is ask Caroline her name and after hearing that she is named after her grandmother he asks "what she do". He remarks that Caroline's grandmother was a strong woman. He respects women.
And then he freestyles. He sets Caroline down and stares right into her eyes and delivers a message about how she's worthy of being loved, and then the chorus happens. Caroline, this could be something special, this love of mine it will never let go, ooh if I could make you mine I would treat you so special, be mine Caroline. She smiles. Once again, the endgame of the men in Magic Mike is to bring a smile on a woman's face. Caroline was just out with her friends trying to have a good time and she did. Andre put her feelings out there in the open for everyone to see, but instead of being the ridiculous almost laughing response from the woman in the gas station this one is of genuine affection.
Much has been said of how Soderbergh's digital cinematography equalizes skin tone in Magic Mike XXL and makes everyone stunning, and that isn't just something happening in the colour. What's so radical about this is that the images are also backing up how everyone is lit to look. There is one scene earlier on in this section of the movie where former pro football star Michael Strahan dances around a woman who is black, and fat, but that woman's enjoyment isn't treated any differently than any of her white or skinny counterparts. Her arousal, her happiness is put on equal footing with everyone else. That's beautiful. That's not just lip service for calling women in the film "queens", because when you're calling women who usually aren't represented in movies and treated as beautiful "queens" that's something remarkably feminist, and rare.
Andre and Ken (Matt Bomer) talk about the joys of making women happy in a scene preceding the one in the above screencap. Andre says "We can be healers. We can give these women what they want just by listening to them. Their boyfriends and husbands don't but we do.". All of that is put into effect directly in the next scene. Mike and the Boys meet back up with a group of girls they befriended at the beginning of the movie, because they needed a place to crash. What they find upon arriving at the lavish mansion is that the Zoe's (Amber Heard) mom (Andie MacDowell) and her girlfriends are having a girls night out. They're all drunk. They're all impressed with the men that have just walked in their door, but what could have been an awkward situation quickly turns into communion.
A fascinating thing about Magic Mike XXL is that the episodic nature of the road trip is given weight by a cyclical narrative. Everything eventually comes back around to mean something greater later on. The healer conversation is one example, but the final act is even more resonant. Mike invites Zoe to Myrtle Beach, because she's depressed. He tells her he's going to win back her smile after they have a long conversation about cake versus cookies and her personal life. The line about cookies comes back around in his song selection for that final dance, and even Ritchie's fireman routine is dropped in favour of an earlier mentioned marriage proposal dance. Every little thing in Magic Mike XXL gets a payoff, but the greatest of all these moments are when happiness is given back to women, and by effect to the audience.
"I'm a cookie monster"
The most lavish sequence in the entire movie is the final set piece where 2 dancers mirror each others moves in a sequence that's like if Cocteau and Minnelli decided to craft a scene around stripping together. It is gorgeous, perfectly choreographed and resonant. Despite all of the attention paid to dancing one thing becomes clear, Zoe's face is the true focal point of the action. She's always lit just a little bit brighter than everything around her and the framing and choreography work around her reaction. There is one moment where Mike picks her up and places her head between his legs and there's a zoom in on his face, but then goes right back to her own reaction. The camera pulls out from the action to showcase the symmetry and dancing, but always comes back looking for her approval by focusing on her face. She goes from embarrassed to flattered to enraptured by the time things close up and Mike asks her if she got her smile back. She did.
The stark difference between the first movie and XXL is the intended audience of the dance. In Magic Mike XXL the women are always key instead of the act of stripping itself. Soderbergh's movie was never about getting a warm reaction out of the audience members, but Gregory Jacobs picture is obsessed with earning a smile. DJ Khaled's "All I Do is Win" plays over the films closing moments, and winning in this instance was about approval from the woman in the gas station to Zoe and in the audience. This was about making women happy. It made me happy.