Magic Mike XXL

At this point I've crossed off nearly every item on my cinematic bucket list. I've seen a movie at a drive-in theater. I've seen a 3D movie using the old school red-and-blue glasses and I've seen a digital 3D movie using those newfangled sunglasses, too. I've watched silent movies while a live organist provided the score and I've watched talkies where actors were recreating the dialogue live on stage.  I've seen movies in public parks, I've been to midnight shows of cult classics, and I've seen multiple films while the director was in attendance.

Oh, and I also saw the original Magic Mike in a theater that was overflowing with rambunctious (and probably drunk) women. Now, that might not sound like a bucket list event, but in my mind it is similar to seeing a full cast version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show: it's a case where the synergy between the film and the audience creates a unique live experience that every cinephile should probably have at least once.

Magic Mike and Rocky Horror might seem like they are very different from each other. After all, Mike is a surprisingly gritty portrait of male strippers, while Rocky Horror is a campy sci-fi spoof. However, they actually have a lot in common. For starters, both are overtly sexual musicals where most of the song and dance numbers are performed by nearly naked actors. More importantly, in both cases the sex appeal was aimed at chronically underserved audiences. Rocky Horror is full of cross-dressing and bisexual sex - two kinks that occur in the real world a lot more than they do on-screen. Meanwhile, Magic Mike is the rare romance which was pitched exclusively at women - the sheer volume of shirtless dudes on screen is enough to scare most men away, thus turning it from a date movie to a bachelorette party treat. When you combine those elements together it's easy to see why you would get a lot of crowd participation with both films and crowd participation is what turns an average movie into an event.

Oh, and they also share one more big similarity: their sequels completely failed to duplicate the magic of the originals.

Now I can't speak to the goodness or the badness of the Rocky Horror spin off Shock Treatment because I have't seen it. (Actually, I didn't even know that I existed until I started to write this.) But I have seen Magic Mike XXL. Actually, I saw it in the exact same circumstances as I saw the original Magic Mike: I was in the same theater, which was equally as full, and while I was equally as drunk. And so I am prepared to say that while XXL is a decent enough movie it lacks the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling that made the first one so special.

Oh, sure, it has its perks. Channing Tatum is still charismatic as Mike. The dance numbers are still very entertaining. Hell, there are more dance numbers here than there were in part one, so I would even go so far as to say that XXL has a better entertaining to not-entertaining batting average than the original. Unfortunately, there's more to being "good" than being entertaining. Magic Mike had its share of crowd pleasing moments, but overall it was a well observed character study of a troubled man who worked in an unusual field. It was comfortable taking left turns and disappearing down dark alleyways for long stretches, and that made the movie feel surprising and unique. Meanwhile Magic Mike XXL is a road movie that is so eager to please that it never really leaves the highway. It delivers striptease after striptease with predictable punctuality like it was an action franchise that decided to swap out fight scenes for dick swinging.

In a way, these two films remind me of the two Hulk films that came out in the 2000s. Ang Lee's Hulk was a superhero movie but it was also an art movie - it tried to merge his themes about repression and desire with a story about a tank-throwing monster. As a result, it was a polarizing film, which some people thought was challenging and which others thought was pretentious. On the other hand the second Hulk movie was a mere monster movie - it gave you as many explosions as you could ever ask for without demanding thought in return. As a result, it was merely another interchangeable blockbuster, one that everyone has been trying to forget for the last few years.

The same thing happened here. Stephen Soderbergh, who directed the original, has always been willing to challenge an audience. He promised them a movie about male strippers, and yes, he delivered a movie that featured stripping, but it was also a movie that explored one of his most important themes - namely, how people's occupation shapes their existence. It's an art movie that welds lowbrow subject matter with highbrow themes, so it's no wonder that it got polarizing reviews - art films almost always do. Meanwhile, Magic Mike XXL promises to be about male strippers and it is about male strippers full stop; these men are defined more by their ab muscles than by their personalities. XXL is so easily digestible that anyone who sees it should go home happy, but once that happiness has faded away I imagine the movie will fully recede from their mind, like a an alcohol high that has faded into sobriety.

There's nothing wrong with merely being fun. Hell, I wish more movies managed to make it even that far! But it is disappointing when you expect to get an experience and receive a mere entertainment instead. Magic Mike XXL looks, acts, and sounds like the original, but it never manages to feel like an event in the same way, and thus it feels like a disappointment. It would have been better if Magic Mike had been allowed to stay in my mind as a truly spontaneous happening instead of becoming just another good example of Hollywood not being able to leave well enough alone.

Of course, that's on me as much as it is on the studio execs who greenlit this money-grab - I'm just as guilty of chasing after they magic as they were. I knew when I bought my ticket for this sequel that I was setting myself up for disappointment. The whole point of a bucket list is to encourage yourself to seek special experiences, but if you keep trying to recreate experiences you've already crossed off your list you run the risk of taking something powerful and reducing it into something pedestrian.

That said: if anybody ever wants to go to a drive in again I'm down. That first time was basically perfect and I am convinced that my next trip could be even better. It has to be, right?

Winner: Me

Magic Mike XXL on IMDB