Magic Mike XXL
2015, R, 115 min. Directed by Greg Jacobs. Starring Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, Amber Heard, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez, Donald Glover, Kevin Nash, Stephen Boss, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks, Jada Pinkett Smith.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 3, 2015
A lap dance is not just a simulation of sex. It’s a simulation of specialness, a paid pantomime of arousal that pretends to be unique to whatever lap is within pelvic-thrust proximity. Magic Mike XXL continues the lie, with a flirty smile, as the rare mainstream film to cater to women’s sexual fantasies. There’s only one shade here: sex-positive, if low-cal feminist, and heterosexual-exclusive. Magic Mike XXL’s hero male strippers may be showered in dollar bills, but you’ll never once see them pocket the cash. You get the drift they’d prefer a good cuddle. It’s a total fucking farce, of course – but so good-natured.
The first Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh and based on star Channing Tatum’s early career as a stripper, was grittier in its exploration of a Tampa revue of male exotic dancers. For all its grinning about grinding bodies, there was no mistaking that a sweaty thong was where Mike’s dreams went to die. Still, women climbed aboard the movie like a theme-park ride and screamed their way through it. Those screams did not fall on deaf ears. The sequel, flatly preposterous but as eager to please as a big dumb Labrador, hardly bothers with plot. It wants only to be loved, and to let women know it loves them, too: titillation and affirmation, sealed with the feint of a real kiss.
Directed by Gregory Jacobs (Soderbergh’s frequent assistant director and producer) and scripted by returning screenwriter Reid Carolin, Magic Mike XXL opens with Tatum staring gloomily at the ocean. The choppy waters extend through the film’s first act – crucially, the early minutes when the audience learns how to read a movie, its point of view and its reason for being. Mike reconnects with his old strip-buddies at a bacchanal pool party, where bikini babes are nameless and fawning; the most prominent one bounces childishly on a hotel bed in a motorcycle helmet, visor down to render her anonymous. Then Mike learns his friends are on their way to Myrtle Beach for a strip competition – their “last ride” before retirement – and he decides to tag along. Their first stop en route is a gay bar, where they commandeer a “queen” contest and stalk the catwalk with a mince that made me wince. If you didn’t know any better, you might think Magic Mike XXL was a real asshole.
But as their road trip progresses and pit-stops in surprising places, another, dual narrative emerges: that of the tender bro, and of the beneficent sex bod. The first film’s supporting actors re-emerge, now individualized and terrifically charismatic – seriously, these guys, who had little to do in the first film, are the making of the sequel. At first the emphasis is on them as dear friends, attentive to one another’s career ambitions, then on them as sexual missionaries tasked with making ladies feel empowered in their sexuality – a mission that extends across class, color, and age lines. Matt Bomer’s Ken, a failed actor and Reiki enthusiast, likes to talk about heart chakras and the goddess pedestal every woman should be put on. Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie may be blighted with a member so large he’s forced to roam the land looking for a vagina he can comfortably call home, but more important, he’s a proud member of the service industry. When one woman lightly paws Dick’s clothed chest, he asks helpfully, “Do you wanna pop the hood?”
This is, it turns out, the film’s raison d’être: Magic Mike’s crew are not sex workers, but sex healers. (The “healer” word is first dropped in a scene that’s positively mumblecore-ish in its overlapping dialogue and intimate camerawork, one in a line of genre samplings that also includes competition-film and road-trip comedy tropes.) In contrast to the first film’s push-pull between arthouse and panty-dropping populism, Magic Mike XXL is more upfront – about what it thinks straight women want, and about its own ridiculousness as a work of dramatic art. There are moments, as when Mike meta-narrates his own pre-show pep talk with a this-is-where-I’d-give-you-the-pep-talk disclaimer, that sound like filler dialogue that somebody meant to rewrite before camera roll. The movie is almost entirely, comically conflict-free. It concludes – inconclusively – with its male-revue brothers lined up, all gleamy-eyed, in a sign-off that recalls Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven Bellagio fountain denouement (Soderbergh shot and edited Magic Mike XXL). The Magic Mike gang’s only heist is to steal a smile out of so many ladies.
In the end, it’s those smiles that matter most. Some of the dancers get laid along the way to Myrtle Beach, but the camera doesn’t track that; instead, it lavishes reaction shots on customers having their wildest fantasies serviced. Their faces never really read as aroused. Instead, they’re startled, joyous, and laughing. Who can argue with that? Magic Mike XXL isn’t really a movie. It’s a bachelorette party, or a book club, or any other safe space where women gather for some of that “you go, girl” good feeling. It’s an amusement-park ride. Fasten the safety belt, secure your purse, and get ready to scream.