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Near the height of the early success of the book "Fifty Shades of Grey," I worked part time at a Barnes & Noble and sold more copies of that book than any other product in our store. I almost always sold it to women who were older than me, and who usually seemed slightly embarrassed about the transaction, like I was an obstacle to their private appreciation of this thing, which felt bad. I remembered this feeling Monday afternoon, when I went to see "Magic Mike XXL," and found myself the youngest and the only male audience member in the room (not unusual; women reportedly made up 96 percent of the film's holiday weekend box office). I felt like a narc: suspicious and intrusive.
The feeling didn't last. I haven't a seen a movie better suited for public, collective appreciation this year: The audience response was continuous and intense. "Magic Mike XXL" is the sequel to Steven Soderbergh's 2012 male stripper opus "Magic Mike," and it's a fun and compassionate film about work and bodies and friendship — a musical that's also a portrait of social relations that are radical and full of brief bursts of energy. There is a strain of upbeat positivity running through the movie that is almost New Age in its sincerity. It isn't hokey, though, it's just kind.
It is also a deeply Southern film, with much of the story staged in Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Channing Tatum stars as Magic Mike, and the movie is set three years after he's left "male entertainment" behind so he could settle down, get married and start his own construction business. This dream never materialized, however, or only partially. There is a profound loneliness in him now — the film opens with a shot of Mike sitting on a beach alone, maybe at dusk. He needs community again, movement. One night in his dim workshop, while he is sawing away with his facemask on, sparks shooting off in all directions, Ginuwine's "Pony" comes up on his Spotify playlist. Whether or not we remember the previous film, we know this moment is significant. He laughs to himself. He remembers what he is capable of. The music is startling, lubricous, cool.
Of course, Mike joins up with his old crew, and a road trip through the Deep South ensues, a passage through self-revelation and "swamp country debauchery," as a drag queen puts it in an early scene. Soderbergh — who isn't this film's credited director, but was its executive producer, director of photography, editor and camera operator (we can assume his imprint, in other words) — is great with stories of male interaction (the "Ocean's 11" series, for instance), not unlike Howard Hawks or Richard Lester, director of "A Hard Day's Night," with whom Soderbergh once published a book-length interview. That Beatles film could even be taken as a model here — a story about men desired by women, performing for women.
The dance performances are certainly essential to the film's success. For one thing, I don't know that I've seen a movie recently that better utilized or understood contemporary R&B. The highlights of the soundtrack are artists like D'Angelo, Jodeci, R. Kelly and Jeremih, who simply can't be incorporated as innocuous background music. Here, they are showstoppers — in the sense that the movie literally gives itself over to them, allows them to be the center of attention and action. And the dancing itself is unpredictable and breathtakingly impressive — Tatum alone deserves an Academy Award for sheer physical athleticism and vulnerability. One of the film's best set pieces occurs in a mansion in Savannah, at a black male strip club owned and operated by a woman (Jada Pinkett Smith) and serving women. "Do you know how beautiful you are?" a female customer is asked, before it is demonstrated for her. The scene is pure atmosphere — seedy and odd and pure and a little embarrassing.
The dancing, in turn, influences every other interaction in the film. The men are generous and physical with each other and with everyone else — every relationship on screen is at least potentially erotic. This is maybe the most powerful thing about the movie, just the way people speak to each other and sit with each other and respect each other. The warmth, the possibility. "The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy," the poet Adrienne Rich wrote, and I am sure Channing Tatum would agree. "They are the most interesting thing in life."
Doesn't hurt with the Godzilla tie-in. With the mentioning of Monarch, and the atomic bomb…