MAGIC MIKE XXL * * * 1 / 2
Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Jada Pinkett Smith and Andie MacDowell. Screenplay by Reid Carolin. Directed by Gregory Jacobs.
Three summers ago I got a lot of funny looks from dudes whenever I mentioned how much I’d loved Magic Mike. Sold as a dopey beefcake extravaganza, the film was actually a stealth socio-economic study – director Steven Soderbergh’s evocative snapshot of recession-era anxiety and the longing for permanence in a time when everything’s become so precipitously temporary.
Inspired by star Channing Tatum’s real-life resume, Magic Mike was basically Saturday Night Fever in a G-String. Funny, seedy and a little bit sad, it positioned Tatum as a millennial Tony Manero yearning to be more than a pretty face on the dance floor, losing his protege The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) to drugs and debauchery, before ultimately breaking free from his own spectacularly sleazy mentor, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, in the performance that kickstarted his comeback.) The film ended the only way that it could, with Mike turning his back and walking out of the club into an uncertain future.
Magic Mike XXL isn’t as good of a movie as it’s predecessor, but it’s a way better party. Correctly sensing that a complete story has already been told, returning screenwriter Reid Carolin scraps all those downer economic observations and gives audiences the ebullient, banana-hammock romp they were probably expecting back in 2012. It’s a virtually plotless, Altman-esque ramble from one exuberant dance sequence to another, bursting at the seams with positivity and good feeling. I had a blast.
We pick up three years after the first film, Mike now struggling to pay a single employee at his startup custom furniture business when some of his old pals from the Kings of Tampa blow into town. Turns out that Dallas and The Kid shuttered the Miami club to go find their fortunes in Macau, leaving the rest the crew high and dry. They’re heading out on a road trip to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach for one last blow-out weekend before they all finally settle down into some grim-sounding day jobs in the straight world.
Mike initially turns down their offer to tag along, but once we see Tatum busting moves in his workshop we know he’s about to jump aboard their ramshackle artisanal frozen yogurt truck for a final ride. Since Dallas and The Kid took that pesky “dramatic conflict” with them when they split, we’re just left with a lot of good-natured ribbing and clowning around. It’s kinda like Entourage, if the guys in Entourage weren’t talentless, misogynistic assholes.
It might look like Magic Mike XXL doesn’t have a thought in it’s charming little head – but as Tatum’s seemingly effortless execution of the intricate choreography proves, appearances can be deceiving. The movie’s sunny generosity of spirit serves as a sneak-attack on conventional movie masculinity, ripping machismo away from toxic Wahlberg-ian Bro culture and offering a more evolved, inclusive concept of manhood.
There’s a wonderful, no-big-deal confidence with which Tatum and the gang carry themselves. These boys pal around with drag queens, everyone’s openly affectionate to one another without a trace of gay-panic humor, and they’re always extremely respectful to women and solicitous of their desires. Inverting typical Hollywood gender assignments, in Magic Mike XXL it is the female characters who have the money and power, and the guys are eager to please them. Not as groveling servants, mind you, but simply because it’s fun.
An early standout moment finds the crew blitzed on Molly, taking bets as to whether or not Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) can get a surly female convenience store clerk to crack a smile. After affirming that indeed “I am a fuckin’ male entertainer!” he vamps through the aisles to The Backstreet Boys using soda and Cheetos as props in a hilarious sexy-time burlesque, for no reason other than to unexpectedly brighten a grumpy gal’s day.
A lot of the movie is like that, episodic delights that I’m a bit hesitant to spoil here, save to note a recurring democratic assertion that people of all ages, colors, shapes and sizes are welcome to pleasure. The film’s epic centerpiece sequence finds Jada Pinkett Smith running a private club out of an antebellum Southern mansion, where the ladies she calls “queens” are treated as such by strapping performers. (The subtext of these wild displays of black sexuality in such a setting is pointed, and wisely unremarked upon.)
But the sex itself is always offscreen, sheepishly discussed after the fact with smiles and lusty giggles. Nobody even calls it “fucking,” preferring the more childlike and less confrontational query: “Did you bangy?”
Soderbergh’s longtime assistant director Gregory Jacobs takes the reins here, lending the proceedings a fanciful, sometimes surreal atmosphere in lieu of the original picture’s sticky Tampa grit. (Soderbergh photographed and edited again under his usual pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, while on vacation between seasons of pulling triple-duty on every episode of The Knick. Because he’s retired.) Long, bravura camera movements track dancers framed head-to-toe, allowing us to fully appreciate the bodies in motion, punctuated by searing splashes of color.
Jacobs pretty much breaks with any semblance of reality in the astonishing finale, a multi-stage extravaganza in which each of the guys gets his own personal show-stopper, presided over by Pinkett Smith pulling emcee duty in John Travolta’s white suit. Tatum’s contribution enlists So You Think You Can Dance‘s Stephen “tWitch” Boss for a deliriously dirty spin on the mirror scene from Duck Soup, which as far as I can recall is the first time the Marx Brothers have been referenced in a movie about male strippers.
Magic Mike XXL is intoxicating, the spirit of goodwill contagious. And trust me dudes, if you take a date to see this one, you’re totally gonna bangy.