To fully appreciate Magic Mike XXL, you must accept that its predecessor, Magic Mike, was a fraudulent bait-and-switch. The 2012 Steven Soderbergh film was billed as a silly, Florida-set tale of good-looking male strippers (played by good-looking actors) flaunting butts carved from marble and poreless pecs, all of which ends in a cascade of dollar bills and G-strings. In actuality, though, the stripping became a garnish to the movie's heavier subject matter, which involved drug-dealing, the financial collapse, and a dour fear of growing old.
While Magic Mike made for a fine drama, it betrayed the basic understanding between audience and stripper film, which is that people pay money to view a motion picture where muscled men grind on women, other men, and inanimate objects like poles, floors, and chairs for at least 50 percent of the runtime.
Thankfully, that isn't the case with the sequel.
Director Gregory Jacobs and screenwriter Reid Carolin's Magic Mike XXL is the cinematic inverse to Magic Mike, swapping out the drama for wild, blazing cuts at physical comedy and leaving behind the first film's dark aches for a friendly happiness.
Magic Mike XXL is not about life or death, nor is it about saving lives — it is about the great love between a small-business owner, Mike (Channing Tatum), and exotic dancing. Now a furniture designer who can't afford healthcare for his one employee, Mike finds a gaping hole in his spirit that can only be filled with the joy of taking his clothes off for a crowd. He's ready to give up everything he has for the chance to perform with his colleagues at a Myrtle Beach stripping convention, to indulge in one more night of thrusting his hips into women's faces and shaking his own face between their thighs. And there is nothing more gloriously American than sacrificing all you can to follow that one fleeting dream.
Stripping is the prime thrust of the film. There isn't a single moment where Magic Mike XXL strays too far from a dance sequence, and not once do any of the dance sequences fail to defy the laws of gravity or pantomime various sexual acts on women, water bottles, chairs, air, or ice cream.
The film also exhibits a brazen desire to be more of a mash-up between Bring It On and Homer's Odyssey than it does to be anything like what we know of Magic Mike. The result is a tremendously more enjoyable movie than the first, and one of the funniest movies of the year.
Male strippers are funny, not sexy
One element from the first film that Magic Mike XXL keeps is the idea that male strippers aren't selling sex. Though men like Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), and Mike are physical specimens, their dancing is strangely more about silly or even earnest entertainment than it is an erotic experience. Male strippers are simply a conduit to happiness, rather than a source.
After rolling into a gas station while high on Molly, Richie comes to an epiphany about stripping and insists he wants to be something truer to his self. He's grown tired of donning and then removing a fireman's outfit to the beat of the same '80s hair song, over and over and over again. So the boys challenge him to get the bored female gas station attendant to smile. Richie tries all the tricks in his book: he thrusts his crotch, he rips open a bag of chips, he shakes his hair like one of Charlie's Angels, he takes off his shirt, and he bends from the hips, hoping to grab her attention and win that grin. But even after Richie's muscle show ends, she's still stoic.
"How much for the Cheetos and water?" he finally asks. That's when her face softens and breaks into the smirk he's been tasked with finding. And then this group, this Fellowship of the G-string, sets out on their next adventure, in search of their next happy customer.
The boys are traveling from South Florida to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a stripper gathering called "The Convention." Though "The Convention" seems like any regular convention, complete with registration and valet parking, it appears to be one big strip show. There are no panels, there is no continental breakfast, there's no agenda; it's just strip act after strip act.
The trip is their own personal Odyssey, an adventure that takes them to East Coast beaches, to Savannah mansions, and even to a gay bar. Along the way, they find old friends and meet new women (and a drag queen), all in hopes of finding themselves.
Mike is trying to regain a sense of purpose. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and Adam (Alex Pettyfer), both fixtures of the original movie, are no longer part of the group, and without the former's antics and the latter's sullen spirit, Mike's colleagues are more vocal and realized than they were in the past.
Underneath his suit of meat and muscles, Richie is a hopeless romantic who seeks a woman who can accommodate his manhood. Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan (Kevin Nash) dream of lives that hopefully involve food trucks and art — the men are realizing that stripping cannot pay the bills forever.
Bomer, whom you might have recently seen in HBO's Emmy-winning film adaptation of The Normal Heart, turns in Magic Mike XXL's most winsome and disarming performance as Ken. The actor boasts a shaded vulnerability, leaning into the anxiousness surrounding Ken's post-stripper career and the hopefulness that he'll find some job, any job, once the last dollar hits the floor. Magic Mike XXL also allows Bomer to show off a dazzling voice alongside his sturdy, dance moves.
Meanwhile, Tatum's Mike sports a different attitude than he did in the first film. Gone are his attempts to convey soulfulness through his eyes, and he's no longer asked to sharply pout. He's still an amazing dancer, but this time around, Tatum is allowed to create someone who's more like his character in 21 Jump Street — a frat bro with a heart of gold encased in a sheath of sculpted brawn.
Mike's newfound attitude and the humor in each of the characters is key to Jacobs and Carolin's goal of producing a movie that may not be as emotionally sprawling as the first, but that's measured and sharpened to hit one note, and to hit that one note so well.
Magic Mike XXL is really a movie about American women
Though a lot of Magic Mike XXL is spent procuring laughs, it also wants to convey a loftier, more slyly feminist message. The women in this movie, from the random ones Mike grinds upon to divorcee Nancy Davidson (Andie Macdowell) to the fiery boss named Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith), aren't groupies — they're in control of their sexuality, their finances, and their happiness.
Though there are a couple of points in the movie where Mike and his band of bros discuss "banging" (which happens off-screen), the women of Magic Mike XXL aren't powerless girlfriends. The off-screen sex feels more like a celebration than a conquest. These men aren't portrayed as saviors or hotly desired dream guys, they're just a form of entertainment. And the only reason they want to better their skills and improve their craft is to make more women happy — to give them something more genuine than the firemen, cowboys, cops, and whatever else the patriarchy has deemed "sexy."
In fact, Magic Mike XXL contains more instances in which men talk about broken hearts and striking out than instances in which women do the same. Richie, Mike, and Ken each have a story to share about missing out on true love. The closest female perspective we see involves Nancy's friend, who discusses her frustration with her husband not wanting to have sex with the lights on. Her admission isn't mopey, it's an assertion — a request to be appreciated.
This is all a departure from the first film, where the phrase, "How pregnant did you get that girl's mouth?" was once uncouthly muttered. Or where Mike was seen as some kind of glimmering catch; Magic Mike XXL features a slow-boil love interest named Zoe (Amber Heard), but her relationship with Mike never evolves beyond strong friendship. Figuring out how this love story ends isn't the point.
Ultimately, sex and sexuality are perhaps this movie's bait-and-switch. What initially seems like a charged romp featuring perfect, sexually-fulfilled male specimens is actually an exercise in levity and laughing at a bunch of attractive dudes as they clumsily grapple with masculinity. Like Tatum's Mike, Magic Mike XXL is incredibly earnest, surrendering itself to the throes of comedy and doing everything in its power to entertain you. And that's as seductive as any other film you'll see this summer.
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