Gregory Jacobs has, more or less, worked on every Steven Soderbergh film as an assistant director since 1993’s King of the Hill. In Magic Mike XXL, he directs. And while Soderbergh returns to XXL as cinematographer and editor, the directorial shift is a noticeable one. The clinical exactness of Soderbergh’s framing now bares a tangible scruffiness, and while compositionally astute, XXL is looser and less driven by formalistic concerns. If 2012’s Magic Mike was thinking with its cerebral head, then XXL is deliberately thinking with its other, more instinctual one. Part of it comes from the road-movie-cum-redemption narrative that writer Reid Carolin – also returning from the original film – adopts, whereby the merry band of male entertainers from the original film (minus a few stragglers) make their way from Tampa to Myrtle Beach for a stripper convention.
We last saw Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) leaving the stripper world to pursue his custom furniture dreams. Three years have passed and his business is growing but not without its struggles. We see Mike actively take part in every aspect of the business’ operations, from design to delivery and everything in between. A call from his stripper past brings him back to the fold, as Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) take to the road for one last go.
The bro-down aspects of the film give way to some genuine wisdom on unrequited hopes and dreams. Carolin opens the film as a study on the failure of male chauvinism, explicitly positioning his male entertainers as failing to achieve their long-term goals. Despite their interaction with women on a nightly basis, these men are preoccupied and haunted by their own perceived deficient maleness. Richie’s big dick functions as both a blessing and a curse. Tarzan’s hopes for domesticity are unrealized, And Ken and Tito reluctantly accept that their respective dreams of acting and sherbet stardom may be out of reach. This all resonates as continued treads from the first film, where the American Dream proved unachievable given the diminutive social prestige associated with being a stripper.
Yet Carolin and Jacobs wisely mirror these masculine concerns through a feminine lens, most vividly articulated in a third-act sequence involving Andie McDowell and a group of middle-aged housewives. Set within an opulent, south of the Mason-Dixon line mansion we find Mike and company seated as mirror images to a gang of women who, too, express their failed hopes and fatigued acceptance of The Way Things Are. It’s to Carolin and Jacobs’ credit that the perspective shared by these two groups is funneled as a singular concern – both the feminine and masculine are one and the same.
This sequence is among the three chief scenic tours in XXL, though the most formally rigorous and aggressively concupiscent occurs somewhat earlier in the film, where Mike and the crew visit an Eyes Wide Shut-esque country club called Domina. Operated by the sultry and domineering Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the chic lodge shelters an exclusively black clientele with black strippers. Rome’s role sees her functioning as both emcee and as a spokesperson for feminine libido, brandishing a microphone as she provides Mike and the crew a formal tour of the grounds. The sequence is an incredibly complex study of gender and racial politics, notable in how it offers a very simple and oft-times forgotten reminder on the way men and women operate. Rome appropriates lines of dialogue that underscore the social objectification of women, whereby her estate is a refuge from the suffering of a society that placates women into subservience. To Rome, Domina is a respite from feminine objectification – the opportunity for women to embrace a mirror image of their reality.
The Domina sequence is dripping in carnality. Not so much for the physical bodies on display, but the visual representation of them. Shot through filters of blue with red lighting emanating from all directions, the images would be startling revelations in digital filmmaking if it weren’t for the fact that Soderbergh consistently makes the argument – whether it be his work in his final film Side Effects or that of Showtime’s The Knick – that digital can, in fact, rival film. Even more significant is the way in which black bodies operate within these sequences, wherein the lighting magnifies their skin tone. Consider how pale – even ghostly – Tatum and his cohorts look in this sequence. They are encroaching on the visual construction of the sequence, and as such, are labeled as outsiders to Domina. But Jacobs and Soderbergh don’t use this visual dichotomy as a source for conflict, but rather sees it as a visual meant to be mended – this is not a place of hostility, but one of love, in all its carnal goodness.
And it’s in this way that Jacobs perhaps made the most logical choice in directing XXL after all. As visually and thematically sophisticated as XXL may be, it remains true to its bro-down road movie narrative. It required a more shaggy approach to imbue these qualities and Soderbergh’s sensibility may, in fact, be too cold. The qualities of XXL’s final sequence seem especially out of Soderbergh’s wheelhouse, which defies spatial coherence for something more abstract that’s viscerally exhilarating and broadly comic. Taking different paths, covering different milieus and social conventions, these Magic Mike films have both been films that addressed much broader existential, gender, and political concerns than their marketing implies.