“Magic Mike XXL:” Love Letter from Hollywood Channing Tatum to Florida Channing Tatum

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Illustration by Lydia Wojack-West

Withering penises of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for your consideration to fill Brad Pitt’s trajectory from Teen Sex Object to Prestigious Masculinity LAARPer: Channing Matthew Tatum.

Tatum is fifteen years removed from his stripper diaries days. In fifteen years, he will be the age Brad Pitt is now, who by then will be pushing 70. Our film icons and audiences age. It’s important to recognize aging in physicality and visual identity, insecurity, stability, artifice, pleasure and other broad, bold topics. Magic Mike XXL (2015) touches visual moments of Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch and ham-fistfuls of John Hughes like someone read about these filmmakers without seeing their movies. Magic Mike XXL touches numerous ideas, but doesn’t dwell on them long enough to give the audience enough time to take them in, likely because much of the film’s third act is the Myrtle Beach Stripper Convention, which I think exists in a cabaret film universe more akin to Thunder Down Under or Chippendale’s than, say, the boylesque circuit, American male strip clubs or American road and/or striptease films. Still, when will Gloria Steinem’s I Was a Playboy Bunny get turned into road films and a musical? Will Blac Chyna and Amber Rose start getting considered for prestige work? Will American men stop killing sex workers? Will Cristal Connors get justice against that slut Nomi Malone?

Out of the multitude of themes Magic Mike XXL grazes, the most salient theme is around Tatum, the film star, going further as an intellectual symbol than Pitt’s Thelma and Louise (1991) drifter/hustler character, by dipping into his very own 20th century Floridian stripper diaries, mixed with Reid Carolin’s characters and classic Hollywood sheen, to become a 21st century superstar. Tatum’s filmography is filled with man-boys and boys-turned men who experience psychological hardship or horror. See also: Coach Carter (2005), Stop-Loss (2008), Dear John (2010) and the G.I. Joe and Step Up franchises. Tatum’s got some great names on his resume, but a lot of it seems like teenage fare. Tatum wants to be a Serious Actor for Serious Awards but also Just One of the Boys. Seth MacFarlane’s work wants the same thing. This form of contradictory authenticity is about ownership, in this case owning that which heterosexual culture says you shouldn’t. Jock humor isn’t supposed to lead to deeper thought, and real men don’t want attention especially based on physical appearance. It’s not necessarily about overcoming an Adonis complex, but rather the art of navigating the complex. In this sense, Tatum is not just the star of the film, but its sun, the axis around which the cinematic world, if not the whole cinematic galaxy, orbits.

I laughed and almost threw my popcorn at the screen when the camera zoomed in and peered up at Mike “Magic Mike” Lane (Tatum), who through this angle is looking down into not only the audience of the Myrtle Beach Stripper Convention but into the audience of 5th Avenue Cinema, with a wink and a grin of perfectly straight white teeth. It’s so obnoxious, like Quentin Tarantino’s egotistically self-sucking ending shots for Inglourious Basterds (2009). It’s a masculinity manifesto: Magic Mike, the Tampa Kings, and (based on the reactions I observed) the audience all believe in the economic power of the male gaze, even if some of the male objects are submissive. The camera is male and white and never misses an opportunity to remind you. On the road, the Tampa Kings seem like they’re in the #NotAStripper camp. They talk about how so many men don’t ever bother asking women what they want—and then proceed to not ask any of the film’s women what they want. Ever. Not even the film’s new love interest, Zoe a.k.a. Amber Heard (who was still married to Johnny Depp when the film came out). Magic Mike and Channing Tatum are the type of men to occupy gay/queer spaces to hit on women and straight-wash RuPaul’s Drag Race into Lip Sync Battle (as foretold when Magic Mike enters a vogue off against two unfortunate rural gay men). Like, what person wants chocolate slathered on their thighs that’s not getting licked off? She has to go home like that, whichever Reiki-practicing #NotAStripper stripper you were!

But the Tampa Kings still praise themselves for even bothering to be curious and call themselves healers. Yes, strippers and sex workers can be healers, but the Tampa Kings are not. They’re those dudes from your high school football team you drink with in the parking lot of your local Dairy Queen after the quarterback’s funeral. You go home. They are home.

Magic Mike XXL‘s Tampa Kings look and sound great on film, but aren’t representative of natural reality. They’re like a mediocre-feeling lap dance that would probably look great on Snapchat. Then again, Magic Mike and other striptease-themed films like Burlesque (2010), Strip Tease (1996), Showgirls (1995) and Cabaret (1972) give some film audiences their first entries into the real world of strip clubs and striptease. In Magic Mike XXL‘s world, whether you’re in a vague Jada Pinkett Smith–run private club-slash-music video fantasy (that totally visualizes and embodies Bart Fitzgerald’s T:BA artist talk about the intersection of the secular and sacred in trap music), a rural gay club or the highest Hollywood production value convention ever, you can see beauty, feel beauty, and be beauty, as long as you plan on emptying your bank account and as long as that beauty is cinematically quantitative beauty.

The contrast of homes in Magic Mike XXL is worth noting. Rome and Nancy’s homes are both old Southern mansions. Both remind me, in ways, of Xanadu from Citizen Kane (1941): the opulent, loveless and incomplete pleasure palace hoarding treasure. Rome’s home looks like multiple sets from music videos about the wildest house party you ever saw and exists as a space between commercial and residential. Nancy’s home could be any Better Homes & Gardens South Carolina cover model, orderly and old money, starched and sexless, if only slightly less repressed than the oppressive prior generations who built the home and family wealth denied to people like Rome.

Magic Mike XXL is very much a Floridian road film. The Floridian days show vivid color, blue skies, and beautiful, textured beaches that are ridged, rugged and smooth, something like a magazine-classic six pack. The nights give way to sunset hues surrounded by encroaching darkness, where you only see slivers of people in the dark. 5th Avenue Cinema’s 35 mm projector gave the film an extra Amaro nostalgia filter, making it a relic of pre-Pulse Florida nightlife culture. The thing is, Magic Mike XXL is Hollywood’s idea of Florida. The Florida of this cinematic universe thinks Disneyland and Disney World are the same. Tampa, by the way, is roughly half the size of Portland, and Myrtle Beach is roughly a sixth the size of Tampa. There’s Hollywood darkness, and there’s Floridian darkness. Magic Mike XXL acts like bath salts, credit card fraud and Aaron Carter’s trifling ways aren’t crucial to the Florida Life.

Sure, Tampa seems like a petri dish of people you went to high school with who haven’t read a book since graduation, but Magic Mike is deep, guys. He asks questions, man, even if he isn’t interested in answering them. He wonders aloud what is going to happen to the Tampa Kings after the convention, but the film isn’t really interested in answering what happens to aging American sex workers in natural reality. But at least he asks these questions while occupying prominent, pleasurable space aligning with the rule of thirds.

In this sense, Magic Mike XXL seems like it is sewn together by the dream logic of porn and musicals. Only by this logic can a man stripping in a convenience store and dousing himself with Pepsi be laughed off as benign, rather than having his ass arrested for drug possession. Bisexuality also makes the same played-for-laughs, deus ex machina appearance I’ve seen in locker room comedies like Dodgeball (2004). If the film wants to be so deep and “authentic,” why does bisexuality still read exactly like a Vaughn–Stiller comedy?

Three characters crucial to Magic Mike (2012) didn’t make a physical comeback for the sequel: the bright-eyed 18-year-old male stripper (Alex Pettyfer), his sister/Magic Mike’s love interest (Cody Horn) and Magic Mike’s greedy business manager (Matthew McConaughey). But their absence makes these characters central: the men’s absence destabilizes the Tampa Kings troupe, and the woman’s absence makes up half of the failures in Magic Mike’s life. Magic Mike XXL explores the darkness between the bright lights and ultra-neon colors.

Magic Mike XXL isn’t interested in using muscular male physique to do any performative labor. In fact, white women and people of color perform almost all of the labor that gets the Tampa Kings anywhere in the film, whether it’s using Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias)’s food cart as the Road Film Vehicle, Zoe’s mom Nancy (Andie Macdowell) financing the rest of the trip after Tobias and his food truck are hospitalized, or Magic Mike’s former romantic partners Rome (Pinkett Smith) and Paris (Elizabeth Banks) defying all convention rules to give the Tampa Kings (who didn’t even pre-register!!!) a money-making slot in the convention show.

To remove three white people from the first Magic Mike is what creates the sequel. To remove these three people would be to create a fifteen-minute avant-garde bar film with Tatum and Donald Glover playing strippers and making meta conversation about their natural reality entertainment careers while being “authentic” and not looking at the camera but totally looking at the camera. I mean, they still went ahead and added that, while reducing Andre (Glover)’s role in the stripper convention to Bruno Mars karaoke singer who doesn’t take off his clothes like the rest of the troupe. Literally, the men just show up and expect to be rained with applause and dollar bills based on their abs and the promise of a hard dick.

Magic Mike XXL wants you to think that it thinks about topics like why a man might struggle with getting hard (say, battlefield PTSD), but the film doesn’t delve too deep into these waters. It’s not a swimming pool, but a water feature you’d see at a strip club Portland will never be able to afford (and when Portland can afford a water feature strip club, this New Portland will have already been paved over). If these men really performed the transformative labor, they’d be out of jobs. They’re part of the sexual revolution, like the recently passed Hugh Hefner, but like the recently passed Hugh Hefner, they refuse both their complicity in the systems that keep women from getting what they want and refuse their power to do anything that removes focus from them.

How would you do a sequel to Magic Mike XXL? It would be Channing Tatum being closer to 50 than 40 and being a Tampa bartender who used to be a stripper and struggles with existential depression (which, yes, would absolutely see that). But no, Magic Mike is being turned into a musical instead of a trilogy, and/or directly inspired the Magic Men stage show. It’s evidence that Magic Mike touches without feeling, and in an environment where consent is only implied, not explicitly given.

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