Saturday 4 July 2015

Man 2, man: "Magic Mike XXL"

It can't just be the fact of my heterosexuality - nothing in this life is ever that simple - but there are concepts in theoretical physics I will understand better than I ever will the idea of a Magic Mike franchise. There are franchises starring Kevin James that I understand better than I do the idea of a Magic Mike franchise. Still, sometimes being on the outside of a phenomenon looking in can be as useful a critical position as any, so let's plough on regardless, and see where it takes us. 2012's first MM struck this viewer as typical of the kind of half-assed, barely there riff on exploitation and American body fascism Steven Soderbergh had been reduced to in the years immediately before his retirement; granted, it lent some glitz and verve to stripclub routines, but it ultimately had far less to say about the relationship between toned flesh and hard cash than Soderbergh's near-unwatchable The Girlfriend Experience, possibly because it was partly based on its star Channing Tatum's fond memories of his time in a posing pouch. (Between Foxcatcher and the Jump Street comedies, Tatum is winning me over as a performer, so all I'll say is this: it must be nice to have emerged from the stripping game with several big Hollywood paydays in your back pocket.)

Anyway, the opportunity to see the bums of several TV stars was apparently too great for vast numbers of the cinemagoing public to pass up, so we now have the sequel, Magic Mike XXL, which Soderbergh has passed on to his sometime protege Gregory Jacobs (Criminal). The new film does that very sequelly thing of taking the whole show on the road, this time to some kind of hustlers' convention, and not in a spacious tourbus, but a cramped van previously used in the promotion of artisanal frozen yoghurt. (I laughed at this, not least as those on board are far busier with the joy-suppressing business of knocking back liquidised whey protein.) Since the crew have been deprived not just of first movie figurehead Matthew McConaughey, but their regular engagements, Reid Carolin's script has to find ways to shoehorn in the crotch-thrusting the audience want en route: at a gas station, then at a stripjoint with a predominantly black staff and clientele, which at least serves as a smart corrective to the original movie's whiteness, and then at Andie MacDowell's house, where Bryan Adams's "Heaven" becomes an unlikely choice of seduction music, and Tatum's just-dumped Mike takes up with householder's daughter Amber Heard.

If at this point I cared one iota either way about Mike as a character, I think I would want him to end up with a more spirited presence than Amber Heard; the sequel's other keenly felt absence is that of Cody Horn, Tatum's significant other first time around, who seemed prepared to challenge our boy's ideas about life and work - but then the sequel, having already wooed its audience, tends not to be in the business of challenging anyone. (Contrast this with Michael Bay's Pain & Gain, which better understood the dangers of putting such lunks centre stage - and the worshipping of six-packs.) The bulk of MMXXL is, then, made up of jovial inter-bro spitballing, of a kind American comedy cycled through under the Judd Apatow administration and now appears to have emerged from under the influence of Paul Feig: this time round, the guys' jaws put in more work than their hips, resulting in more talk than action. The franchise has gone to flab, and its softness is appealing only up to a certain point. Of course, stripping is all about anticipation, but MMXXL's big finish - the camera roaming from one convention stage to the next as each lead performs a solo routine - has the naff look of 1970s Top of the Pops: I feared Jacobs would eventually alight upon the group Racey performing their hit "Some Girls", thus killing any erotic charge forever.

I guess the first film's achievement was to demonstrate that it was, after all, possible to make something commercial from the Showgirls set-up: it can't have harmed its chances that a decade and a half's Internet access had made the audience vastly more confident in its gaze, every click normalising the objectification and commodification of flesh (both male and female, straight and gay); and that Tatum and chums exuded a boyish charm that presumably allowed viewers to feel rather better about themselves than they might have done about, say, hiring an actual sex worker to perform for them. (That film opened up the possibility of a world beyond stripping, and the script was very careful to point out these boys were assembled for your pleasure.) 

Second time round, though, everybody's in it for the money, and while I'll dodge one gender-politics bullet by acknowledging that, yes, seeing as there are at least 10,000 movies that slaver over the female form, there shouldn't be any major objections to two that lean back in the opposite direction and strive to tickle an audience with their plums, part of me wonders why we really need any of this at all. Are we so starved for validation in our personal lives that we have an urge to seek out this kind of blatantly commercialised fantasy? Is it the corporate packaging, the money Warner Bros. have splashed across the screen, the reluctance to show anything that might compromise the multiplex-friendly 15 certificate, which makes the Magic Mikes acceptable entertainment - SFW, as opposed to NSFW? Either way, the whooping and hollering coming out of the cheap seats as MMXXL delivers yet another shot of dollar bills communing with buffed flesh struck me as another sad indictment of where mainstream American cinema might be heading; worse still, of where the audience's aspirations are headed.

Magic Mike XXL is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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