Well, I know why I wanted to see Magic Mike XXL: hunky guys taking their clothes off at regular intervals is a de facto winning formula for this middle-aged gay guy. Also, I’d liked the first Magic Mike movie, from 2012, as more than just a Playgirl calendar come to life: that film’s director Steven Soderbergh has the knack of making entertaining genre pictures seem deep, and making deep, arty pictures entertaining. (Soderbergh executive-produced this sequel and, under pseudonyms, did the cinematography and editing; Gregory Jacobs directed.)
But sequels are often a tough balancing act, as filmmakers seek to create something that will both attract and satisfy the original’s fans while bending, stretching, or otherwise expanding on the first film’s premise. Magic Mike XXL takes the bold and not always successful tack of focusing much more on the actual dances/stripteases/performances of Mike and his buddies, and much less on any kind of narrative structure containing them. This film is primarily about beautiful male bodies moving through artfully lighted space, sometimes being showered with dollar bills by throngs of thrilled women, other times using individual women as seemingly delighted props in erotically symbolic, or symbolically erotic, dance routines.
Does that sound too abstract and/or political? Remember that we do get to see Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer and several other gorgeous guys wearing not much more than a sheen of sweat. For gay men, straight women, and really anyone who appreciates the beauty of the male form, it’s like being a kid let loose in the eye candy shop.
What narrative momentum there is has Mike (Tatum), who abandoned his stripping buddies three years earlier to focus on his furniture design business, reuniting with the old gang for a road trip to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Such plot points as there are exist mainly to get the boys from one strip/dance venue to the next, culminating in their [SPOILER ALERT!] highly successful turns at the convention. It doesn’t make the mistake that Pitch Perfect 2 did, of making its plot so convoluted and unmotivated that its musical numbers came as a relief instead of a bonus.
Magic Mike XXL treats its plot about as seriously as a Crosby-Hope Road movie does. Its humor, especially the interactions among the bros, all full of crackpot schemes for a life beyond stripping, has that same casual, tossed-off quality too. Big “dramatic” moments - Tatum revealing that his sweetheart from the first movie turned down his marriage proposal, and his reunion with an old flame played by the regal Jada Pinkett Smith, are perfunctory without being overly annoying.
There’s also a lovely sequence with the boys visiting the home of a rich Charleston divorcée played by Andie MacDowell - Soderbergh’s star from his first indie hit way back in 1989, Sex Lies & Videotape. Pretty-boy Bomer serenades one of MacDowell’s friends (Jane McNeill) after she admits that her husband has never left the lights on during sex. And Manganiello, whose character’s name is Big Dick Ritchie, finds in MacDowell the perfect fit for his impressive appendage. It’s a mark of this movie’s combination of delicacy and debauchery that this lucky turn of events is referred to as his “finding the glass slipper.”
As nice and female-empowering as this sequence is, it (along with a lot of other scenes) just go on too long. The danger of having very little narrative momentum in your screenplay (by Reid Carolin) is that you can’t rely on the artificial stakes of the plot to keep the audience interested.
What saves the movie are the performances. Tatum, besides being adorable, is a hell of a dancer. His solo in his furniture shop, as the rhythm takes him and he remembers the joys of moving his amazingly flexible body around poles, up on work tables and every which way, is impressive. It’s as if Gene Kelly had been bitten by a radioactive porn star.
Manganiello gets his moment in the sun as well at a gas station minimart, doing an increasingly outrageous, go-for-broke funny erotic dance in an effort to get the bored sourpuss of a clerk (Lindsey Moser, an Amy Schumer lookalike) to crack a smile. There’s also a nice in-joke: Manganiello, who made his name on the HBO vampire series True Blood, disdains a competing act at the strip convention for being another Twilight-themed ripoff.
So do the Magic Mike movies reverse the polarity of the all-powerful male gaze by turning men into drool-worthy objects and naughty-but-safe fantasy figures? Does Pinkett Smith’s club, Domina, which caters to African-American women she ennobles by calling them “queens,” reveal the hidden erotic and economic power that supposedly disenfranchised women can wield? Or is Magic Mike XXL really about artistic fulfillment, with each dancer finally linking their bodies-in-motion with their non-stripping passions?
If anyone really cares about these academic arguments, see Magic Mike XXL and make sure you turn your essays in by Friday. For the rest of us, see the movie with your best gay and gal pals. Hoot and holler and laugh; it’s a bargain. Think of all the single dollar bills you’re saving.