It’s no big news that sequels are made for the most cynical, mercenary reasons, but the actors in Magic Mike XXL seem to be having a blast selling out, swiveling their tanned, toned torsos in high-camp stripteases while hordes of women shriek, grope, inhale that sweet ambrosial sweat, and shower them with bills.
The movie is basically a road comedy: episodic, ramshackle, more of a lark than the 2012 Magic Mike, which was yet another Steven Soderbergh parable of how capitalism transforms sex into a soulless commodity. This sequel — directed by producer Gregory Jacobs and photographed by Soderbergh under his nom de lumière “Peter Andrews” — doesn’t have the same morality-play structure and even seems, at times, like a reversal of its predecessor. The movie (written by Reid Carolin) says that it’s so tough to make it in our present woeful economy that a man might as well shed his clothes and bring sunshine into the lives of undersexed ladies.
Magic Mike XXL (those aren’t Roman numerals — they stand for extra extra large) opens with Mike (Channing Tatum) abandoning the stripper life in Tampa to move in with the last movie’s light-haired “good” girl (played by dead-voiced Cody Horn, who doesn’t reappear — yay). But as Mike toils in his furniture workshop, unable to afford insurance policies for his employees, he evinces a palpable loneliness. Then he gets a message: Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the old club’s Machiavellian impresario, has died. A reunion with his former colleagues makes Mike long for the camaraderie. Back in his workshop, a number he knows comes on the radio and — in the movie’s first big moment — his thigh muscles twitch. Soon he’s leaning over a plank so that his lats swell up and triceps pulse. Then he’s Footloose-ing all over the goddamn place. It isn’t long before he’s jumping into the food truck carrying his fellow strippers — played by Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and Kevin Nash — and heading to Myrtle Beach for the convention that will be their last hurrah.
It’s sort of like Pitch Perfect 2, only with better music and dancing and less trumped-up conflict. There is some: Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie wonders early on if Mike is really ready to bring it old-school, and others have the same doubts. But Mike gets the magic back at their first stop, a Jacksonville drag bar, and by the time they get to the Savannah strip club run by an amusingly imperious Jada Pinkett Smith, he’s rising to her challenges and then some. After a Dionysian interlude at an antebellum Charleston mansion full of lusting middle-aged rich women led by Andie MacDowell (a marginally better actress with her true southern accent), the lads pull into the convention center, where they’re greeted (and cut down to size) by Elizabeth Banks as the dominatrixlike organizer. But don’t worry: They have new songs, new props, new routines, and a thousands of big fat shrieking women to tantalize.
I had doubts that Tatum — a lug in the Wachowskis’ misbegotten Jupiter Ascending — could carry the movie without the syrup-and-steel stylings of McConaughey. But he’s a charming fellow when he plays against his luggishness, batting his eyelashes like a demure little ingenue as his shirts slide off his formidable back. He’s self-effacing with the other actors — he lets them each have their moments. The problem is that the screenwriter gives him another “good girl” love interest, played by Amber Heard, and their banter is so wooly and unfocused that I never did figure out who she was supposed to be. (I often have that problem with Heard, whose spacey vibe doesn’t suit many roles. In the upcoming The Adderall Diaries, her investigative journalist is the least convincing since “Janet Lawton” in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.)
Chief among Magic Mike XXL’s other sins is one of omission: Why isn’t at least one of the major male characters gay? It’s not as if the percentage of gay male strippers is low. Would more than a touch of homoeroticism be too threatening? Or is the whole movie meant to be camp and every character really a man in drag?
My hunch is that the whole thing was thrown together quickly and shot on the fly, which accounts for the loose narrative and let’s-put-on-a-show sense of immediacy. And I’ll take it this way, if only for the dancing — choreographed by Alison Faulk and edited with a light hand by Soderbergh, who cuts when he has to and not because he wants to blow us away. He lets us savor these hard bodies in motion — to see them through the eyes of screaming females. Sure, this is a dumb sequel and everyone’s on one level slumming. But they’re slumming in style.