I don't think Steven Soderbergh understands why people like the 'Magic Mike' movies
'Magic Mike's Last Dance' returns the series to self-seriousness.
This post contains spoilers for Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL, as well as basic plot details from Magic Mike’s Last Dance. Portions of it were drawn from my Letterboxd page.
The Magic Mike trilogy has one of the strangest arcs I’ve seen in any film trilogy.
When Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike debuted in 2012, it became an international sensation, grossing over $167 million worldwide. Channing Tatum brought so much charisma and verve to the character of Mike Lane, a talented stripper who had a dream of starting his own custom furniture business. But it’s easy to forget how dark and upsetting the movie’s themes and plot were.
As with every film in the trilogy, Magic Mike has some fun, well-choreographed, and well-shot male stripping sequences. But the film was also made in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and it captured a deep economic anxiety felt by many Americans — especially those in Florida, where the film took place. Magic Mike doesn’t strip because he loves it; he strips because he has to, because his construction job doesn’t pay enough. And when he tries to find a way out of his current lifestyle by starting a small business, his bank rejects him because of his credit history and (we intuit) because his job isn’t respectable enough.
Magic Mike’s coworkers destroy their bodies for their livelihoods and give into drug-fueled debauchery and casual sex on a weekly basis. While there is fun and some amount of glamor in working in a male revue show, the film’s ultimate message is that Mike’s night job is a debasing, destabilizing one. It concludes with Mike triumphantly getting together with Cody Horn’s mind-numbingly boring and normcore character Brooke, a scene that’s intercut with Matthew McConaughey on stage getting pawed at by women as dollar bills rain down upon him. Magic Mike has made it because he’s escaped from his former life and his former coworkers.
Enter Magic Mike XXL, which debuted three years later and is one of the most bizarre sequels I’ve ever seen. The first film was a dark, brooding art house film that just happened to have male stripping in it whereas Magic Mike XXL is a fun road movie. The latter understands that what people loved about the first film were the stripping scenes and Magic Mike being Magic Mike. Therefore, it completely jettisons virtually every single thing about the first film that didn’t work. Gone is Alex Pettyfer’s charisma vacuum character of Adam (AKA The Kid), as well as Cody Horn’s character, who unceremoniously declines Mike’s proposal offscreen (WTF? The only thing harder to believe than Mike wanting to be with Brooke is Brooke not wanting to be with Mike). Instead, Mike decides he misses the dancing life too much and teams up with his former colleagues for One Last Show.
About those guys: no longer are they primarily a source of drugs and debuachery. Instead, they are a bastion of life and healing (literally, Matt Bomer’s character goes from pawning his wife off to other men in the first film to becoming a reiki healer in the second). Dancing is no longer a sign of failure or a harbinger of a drug-fueled descent toward rock bottom but a locus of joy and wonder. Providing laughter and pleasure to women becomes the ultimate goal of these men, all while having a good time and trying to self-actualize themselves. Joe Manganiello’s iconic performance at the gas station basically summarizes the entire vibe of the film in one scene.
It’s a hangout movie, a buddy movie. It’s much more fun than the first film, and much more understanding of its own innate appeal. While Soderbergh didn’t direct this one, I’m baffled by the fact that he shot and edited it because it seems to undo so much of the DNA of his first one. Oh well. Maybe Soderbergh got wise to what people loved about Magic Mike after all.
At least, that’s what I thought until I saw Magic Mike’s Last Dance.
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In Magic Mike’s Last Dance, Mike finds himself down on his luck yet again. His furniture business has failed and he’s working catering gigs this time, but by chance he manages to impress Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek), a rich socialite who invites Mike to choreograph a male revue show at a stodgy London theater she owns as a form of revenge against her mega-rich husband, a Logan-Roy-type character named Roger Rattigan (Alan Cox). Mike and Maxandra attempt to overcome a series of obstacles to putting on the show, all while discovering their own feelings for each other.
The film’s biggest crime is it gets rid of what made the second film work, AKA Mike’s crew of boys that provided so much laughter and camaraderie. We only see them via a Zoom call from London, whose video/audio quality is so bizarrely awful that it wouldn’t be acceptable for me in one of my podcasts, let alone a nationally released feature film. Instead, a lot of the film revolves around Mendoza’s challenging personal life. Mendoza is in the process of figuring out whether she can divorce her husband and she struggles with keeping the love of her daughter and the patience of her driver, all while trying to shake the feeling that maybe putting on this show is just a random flight of fancy.
Hayek and Tatum have undeniable physical chemistry and it’s just fun to see two of the most beautiful people in the world hanging out and dancing. But the film’s plot is threadbare, self-serious, and uninteresting. A significant subplot hinges on the building code for the theater they are performing in, to give you a taste of what this film has cooking. When the payoff finally comes, it’s so profoundly unsatisfying that I went online to google the plot afterwards to see if I’d understood it correctly.
But putting aside the plot, for the film to ultimately work we need to believe that Mendoza and Tatum’s love story is grand and epic. Mendoza believing in Mike’s talent is legitimately heartwarming and powerful, but her behavior in the film is mercurial and the two of them don’t seem to have a great professional relationship. Soderbergh has said that he was inspired to make this film after seeing Tatum and choreographer Alison Faulk put together the stage show version of Magic Mike. But if this movie is a reflection of how it was put together, I can’t imagine it was a good time for anyone involved. Mike and Mendoza argue constantly and there are only a few fleeting moments where it feels like an actual collaboration of equals. I’ve been in situations before where a rich benefactor needs your help but has endless opinions about what form that help should come in. It’s not typically a great experience for the recipient and it’s certainly not a great foundation for a romance.
There is one way in which I find the plot of Magic Mike’s Last Dance resonates: as a metaphor for Soderbergh himself. I think Soderbergh is one of the greatest directors of our generation and several of his movies are all-time greats in my book. He loves to experiment and explore and try out new techniques, even when they’re not successful.
Soderbergh has declared that he’s quitting filmmaking many a time in a similar way to how Mike Lane says in this film that he’s done with dancing. But just as Mike is lured back into the game by someone who believes in him, Soderbergh has been unable to stop making movies. Maybe it’s because he knows that we believe in him too. Even if, inexplicably, he did make the two worst Magic Mike movies.
Stuff I’ve made
On Decoding Reality this week, Justin and Daejah break down the phenomenon of one of The Bachelor’s most prominent characters this season.
[PAID ONLY] Available early for Decoding TV members, Christian Spicer and I discuss episode 5 of The Last of Us, which closes out an overall memorable 2-episode arc.
[PAID ONLY] On my Patreon, I share my thoughts about Magic Mike’s Last Dance in audio form.
The fire in this post is hot enough to reach Texas.
>But the film’s plot is threadbare, self-serious, and uninteresting. A significant subplot hinges on the building code for the theater they are performing in, to give you a taste of what this film has cooking.
I raise...with the plot of Glengarry Glen Ross.
I just can’t bring myself to watch the latest Magic Mike movie, because the joyful, erotic trash of MM XXL just can’t be surpassed. If you’ve never read it, I recommend Roxane Gay’s hilarious summary/review: https://the-toast.net/2015/07/01/magic-mike-xxl-recap/