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“My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind,” Ovid begins his Metamorphoses, entreating the gods to aid him in making “an unbroken thread of verse” as he transmutes myth—and the history of the world—into poetry. It might be foolhardy to invoke Ovid at the start of an article examining a comic “male entertainer” saga like Magic Mike XXL, but this is a film about exposed bodies in motion and in disguise, transforming through performance. The film itself is a metamorphosis: Steven Soderbergh’s more dramatic and austere 2012 predecessor mutates, in the hands of new director (and longtime Soderbergh collaborator) Gregory Jacobs, into an episodic pagan Roman romp, its collage of bare torsos and toned obliques under the gaze of a crawling camera reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s surreal gender-bending Roman epic Satyricon (1969). Fellini’s film, self-described as “science fiction projected into the past,” was history turning a wicked mirror on itself, just as its mock weddings and funerals presented a bizarre mockery of daily life. A euphoric song-and-dance Saturnalia, Jacobs’s sequel is the reverse shot to the first Magic Mike, an antithesis switching out post-recession malaise for the rhapsodic abandon of an American fantasy. Using an all-too-familiar road trip spine, where Mike and his fellow Kings of Tampa engage in a “last-ride weekend” pilgrimage to an annual Myrtle Beach male stripper convention, the dance numbers become mesmeric sensate mantras stealing us away from reality’s—and conventional movie plotting’s—circumscriptions. The “heh-heh” title denotes not only a bigger movie (in budget, characters, locations and yes, length), but also a prophylactic safeguard between viewer and film, real life and the cinematic looking glass where we behold the spectacle of transformation.

Magic Mike XXL opens somberly with Mike Lane (Channing Tatum), ex-stripper and custom furniture small-business CEO, looking out to sea. Having been rejected by the land of stable jobs and family nesting (the dream of “Let’s get fat together,” as an old love note from Mike’s ex-girlfriend Brooke says on a bucket of cookie dough ice cream), the stripper is summoned to put on his hot pants once more. But the original Magic Mike’s resolution didn’t really allow for a sequel. Mike walked away from his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and his fellow strippers—well-endowed Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), New Agey pasty-white babyface Ken (Matt Bomer), self-described token ethnic player Tito (Adam Rodríguez), and the hulking, aged Tarzan (Kevin Nash)—who were making the propitious move from Tampa to Miami. Most of Mike’s savings, a foundation to mount a custom furniture business, were used to bail out his hard-partying nineteen-year-old protégé Adam (Alex Pettyfer) from a drug cartel. Fixed in a shallow, glistening pleasure simulacrum of excess-fueled evenings, Mike grasps that he’s a thirty-year-old stripper at the mercy of ineluctable gravity. After endless flirtations, he chooses to be with Adam’s intelligent and down-to-earth older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). A film produced by “The Estate of Redmond Barry Esq.” (the hero of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful Barry Lyndon), Magic Mike appropriately nods to Kubrick by recalling Eyes Wide Shut’s conclusion with the implication of long-awaited sex between the two sexy leads—then blots us out from the voyeuristic fun with the end credits.

Critics were impressed with Magic Mike, but its target audience, while flocking to the theater to make it a $100 million hit, was perturbed by the lack of devil-may-care decadence. I recall some moviegoers leaving the pair of screenings I attended, upset by how often the camera had languished on life in strange colors and angles, for example on Pettyfer’s Adam, recovering from a drug overdose, the image tilted 90 degrees, or fixed on Tatum and Horn walking on a beach, the reflected sun-kissed water ripples breathing on their bodies. The camera, while fascinated by what it’s picking up, doesn’t pander to us with familiar stop-slow-speed-up visual suturing into whiz-bang glam fun, but holds us at a discrete distance from the bodies in motion.

Magic Mike XXL retains that masterful and lush control (Soderbergh, under his pseudonyms, remains cinematographer and editor), but the tone blossoms and bursts forth with the same command of movement exhibited in Tatum’s dancing. With Mike, we step through the looking glass and into a bizarro Magic Mike world. Matthew McConaughey’s pompous, erratic and oddly asexual Dallas is gone in favor of Jada Pinkett-Smith’s calculating, omnisexual and laser-focused Rome, Mike’s former lover and manager and the proprietor of the Divina Club, a Savannah establishment with a mostly African-American clientele and staff. Responsible love interest Brooke, who worked processing medical claims at a hospital, is recast as sultry photographer Zoe (Amber Heard), a party girl who finds herself used by married men to get ahead. Whereas the titular Mike finds himself over the course of the first film, we now have a consonant ensemble where the heralded command of movie musicals (“Gotta dance!”) becomes a prescription out of conscientiousness and into forgetfulness. The nightlife jubilance is a pleasure principle where—unlike the first film—the target audience is given what it wants.

At first, Mike is reluctant to rejoin his bros on their annual Myrtle Beach pilgrimage, but, invoking Lewis Carroll, he takes up the challenge. “I’m going to go digging for you, Alice,” he tells Dick Richie at a drag show held at a club called Mad Mary’s. “Let’s see how far you really want to go.” He gets on the runway for the amateur drag competition, not at all ashamed to strike androgynous and ridiculous vogues, and the other Kings of Tampa follow.

This incendiary group dance sets up the film’s mythological framework. The Kings of Tampa descend into the rabbit hole, wearing “masks” without costumes (as Mike flirtatiously tells Zoe, who introduces herself as the drag queen Dolly Tits, he’s “a drag queen on the inside,” named Clitoria Labia). Their respective personae belong to their physicality, and Mad Mary’s is a liminal stage, a threshold of identity where the Kings of Tampa are ordained as Queens, initiated by a transgender master of ceremonies, Miss Tori Snatch (Vicki Vox), who, as a kind of all-seeing Tiresias, humbles their real-world dreams (waving her smartphone like a magic wand, she reveals how Dick Richie’s novel idea of “Condomints” has already been done. Such is life).

The post-Mad Mary’s night on the beach revels in the confusion of identity and in how these characters cope with their vocation, lit and photographed so it can’t help but evoke—of all beach movies—the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Mike and company stay away from the water but, like Amity’s July 4th swimmers (MMXXL is also set on the July 4th weekend), are still little more than consumable commodities. In addition to the empty promise of Condomints, we learn that Tito and portly Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), the group’s DJ (and amateur drag winner), have started a food truck—“Fro-Yo Yogurt”—but can’t break free from making snow cones at the local mall. Ken has retained a babyface into his thirties, but is still caught in the repetition of casting calls and delivering headshots, waiting for the big role that never comes. Pissing in the reeds, Mike is spied on by Zoe’s camera, and she jokes that he’s now a picture titled “Stripper Pissing on Beach in Contemplative Pose”—the artisan of custom furniture isn’t allowed be an artist. Instead, he’s made into a work of pop art. The point is that these guys aren’t free to exist as entrepreneurs or as husbands and lovers in stable, monogamous “normal” relationships complete with a house, car, and “Downton Abbey on the weekends”; the world (not to mention the film) needs them in their hack roles as firefighters, Ken dolls, and superhero characters in thongs.

Tarzan emerges as the most significant supporting player in the troupe. It’s he—the most passive and resigned stripper, whose hobby is art—who wakes Mike out of his norm-life slumber, leaving a phone message interpreted as an invitation to Dallas’s wake (it turns out Dallas isn’t dead; he has absconded with Adam to Macau for a new business venture), ushering Mike into the rabbit hole. The film often cuts to close-ups of Tarzan silently looking on as the other men converse; played by retired pro-wrestler Nash, there’s a warm feeling as the old dog overlooks the young pups, understanding he’s already run out of time. He tells us later that, despite the good run of sexual encounters he’s amassed in his life, he would give it all up for a family to which he could regularly come home. “That hole’s never going to be filled. That ship’s fucking sailed.”

With the phone message of Dallas’s (supposed) demise, Tarzan is introduced as the film’s emissary of death, and further witnessed as the team’s gradually deflating tire, whose loud snoring wakes Mike up with a reminder of the reality of aging. He manifests a broader theme of wasted dreams and bygone fantasies. As the boys’ pilgrimage approaches its end, this film, replete with its stock of cinema nerd references (Flashdance, Jaws, The Band Wagon, Howard Hawks, Busby Berkeley, Duck Soup, Fellini Satyricon), even alludes to the Abraham Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Kings of Tampa pull up in a flashy convertible and the framing, preceded by a montage of red, white, and blue over the crowded July 4th beaches, places Tarzan in the fateful presidential hot-seat, an American flag bandana wrapped around his head.

The Kings of Tampa are celebrated by the medium of images but, like Zapruder’s Kennedy, they’re also imprisoned by it, in a home movie that’s become national mythology and replayed ad infinitum. There’s the humorous touch of having many of the congregating strippers at the convention costumed as familiar movie characters—Twilight, Three Amigos, The Matrix, and the Kings of Tampa as Rocky—but commonplace marriage becomes the stuff of stage fantasies. Tired of performing in the fusty garb of firefighters (ironically, since he’s afraid of fire), Dick Richie longs to enact that which he cannot have: a wedding. Forbidden a mate—his manhood is just too darn big—Dick’s final performance involves entering the auditorium in a tuxedo, proposing on one knee to a lucky audience member, exchanging vows and rings, and having rice and bouquets thrown in the air. The mock wedding happens as serenading Divina stripper Andre (Donald Glover) sings Bruno Mars’ sugar sweet (or saccharine) “Marry You.”

Leading his ersatz wife to the stage for “consummation” on a bondage apparatus, the camera breaks from its measured detachment and booms into the spectacle of sex, the apparatus framed as a cross above Dick. The music goes from the surface of sugary sweetness to the industrial carnal pulse of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” the lyrics and dance explicating the veiled implications of wedding vows: “I wanna fuck you like an animal,” Trent Reznor’s familiar words resound with the ritual’s climax. “You get me closer to God!”

It’s rapturous, hilarious, and exhilarating, but Dick Richie’s fulfillment is still a caricature of his dreams. In Magic Mike XXL, the rites of transcendence are performed for the audience. Ken’s New Age rhetoric as a “level three” healer is a little on the nose, but gradually funnels into an encapsulating shroud of sympathy. As Andre drives the Kings of Tampa to a house in Charleston, he bonds with Ken over their power as “healers,” making women who are otherwise mistreated feel special. Earlier in the film, Zoe jokes with Mike, “Any God worth believing in sends you guys in thongs,” but when we see the sparkle in the convenience store clerk’s smile after Dick Richie’s “Cheetos and Water” routine, or how, in Charleston, the Kings of Tampa are able to weave a blessing of happiness to some inebriated middle-aged women, we see it as more than a joke. These Southern belles, presided over by Mrs. Davidson (Andie MacDowell in a sparkling performance that sharply recalls—just as it contrasts with—the neglected and naïve housewife she played in sex, lies, and videotape), have funneled a lifetime of romantic disappointments into expectations for their daughters. The strippers, listening to their grievances, give them complimentary words—and lap dances—but as we look at Mike nod in agreement with his brethren about the women’s best days being far from over, we can tell he’s not being earnest.

The Charleston scene of the Southern matrons is the most bittersweet of the film’s performances, permeated with the longing to reclaim wasted time. It’s here that Tarzan and Mrs. Davidson lay out their regrets of diametrically opposed sex lives—the woman sadly restricted to one lover without fulfilling sexual passion, the man who’s had multitudes of lovers but no Penelope to come home to—and Ken performs Bryan Adams’s cheesy 1980’s ballad “Heaven” a capella. While the song may aggravate some viewers, everything in the scene relates to the misty sentiments underlying the escapism of Magic Mike XXL, the sentiments from which the jokey titular prophylactic is protecting us. “Heaven” points to the fantasy destination where these privileged high school girls of the 1980s were once headed. The melancholy is attributable to the most basic metamorphosis, aging. The company laughs with Ken during this brief moment of healing, though the opaque quiet surrounding the a capella performance fills the scene with aching wistfulness.

Playacting gods and goddesses, the characters in Magic Mike XXL, male and female, exhibit a kind of religious yearning: to reverse bad life decisions, to enact what they cannot have, to loop back toward the heavenly destination of a kitschy rock ballad, or to conquer aging and death with “Resurrection,” the name the Kings have adopted for the Myrtle Beach convention. Running from time, cinema is the leap by which they can become transcendent figures. The ending sequence is no trophy competition; there’s not a Hegelian temporal design. The performance is a rite, the auditorium a religious temple of mirrors: wedding banality and bedroom carnality, posing model and painted goddess, and white Mike and black Malik (Stephen Boss), who together execute an astounding mirror routine, probably the best of its kind since the Marx brothers’ in Duck Soup (1933), taking their selected lap dance partners and simulating the 69 position. The spectacle of moviemaking is the mirror that holds the subject in a permanent moment.

Highlighting an almost sacred relationship between audience and movie, even in a profane and pagan backdrop, Magic Mike XXL’s marketing is seamlessly sutured into its story. The giddiness of a mostly female audience wooing and cheering in an auditorium perfumed with innuendo reaches beyond the entire multiplex sanctuary to workaday drinking-fountain discussion. The audience participates simultaneously in the film’s comedy and its more serious contemplativeness. What’s the cinematic “looking glass” about? The film gloriously glides along something sublime, but it’s fantasy, it’s Wonderland, it’s an obliteration of self. The appeals to Heaven are no more realistic than a group of thirty-something strippers constantly eating carbs (few films have as much junk food). Magic Mike and his men are fixed in our sights. They’re preserved in a movie, able to resurrect and make us smile with each viewing. After their spectacular performance, culminating with Mike and Malik giving their partners the Catholic sign of the cross, we see the Kings of Tampa hitting the city on America’s birthday, laughing and wrapped in the warmth of camaraderie and fresh erotic prospects. They look over a bridge toward the sky.

We don’t see what they see—or rather, they’re not allowed perspective. They’re not seers, just seen, and the concluding “victory” is the narcotic aesthetic of advertising. They may be looking at colorful holiday explosions, but the lack of cathartic movie fireworks, like the sexual consummation denied us at the first film’s close, is the price of being “closer to God,” the toll of Mike’s magic. The absoluteness of fantasy, bending away from reality as we’re submerged into the sparkling movie mirror world, again recalls Lewis Carroll and his poetic summation at the end of Through the Looking Glass, where we linger in a “golden gleam” and wonder if “life is but a dream.”

Magic Mike XXL is a marvelous paradox. Few motion pictures feel as joyously liberated, yet Rome’s words explaining how beauty is more cherished than freedom is troubling as we consider the conclusion’s politics of perspective and the pretense of domination in sexual rituals. The dichotomy of beauty and freedom hooks back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the story of Phoebus pursuing Daphne. The sun god pursues the beautiful nymph, who escapes the imperious gaze by transforming into a tree; she’s still beautiful, but her fixedness in bark and branches symbolizes a tragic lack of freedom. In Magic Mike XXL, the performers of Resurrection have made their “deal with the devil” (as Elizabeth Banks’s convention MC, Paris, puts it), acquiescing to the audience’s demands. The Apollonian camera adores every character that crosses its coordinates. But it also freezes them in their stations.

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