If you’d told me before the fact that a movie about male strippers starring Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum would have been amongst my top five films of 2012, I may not have believed you, except for one key fact — the movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who tends to elevate could-be lowbrow material above and beyond expectations.
The first Magic Mike was, seemingly, an anomaly — a relatively light-hearted summer crowd-pleaser with real substance beneath the surface. Shedding genre conventions like rip-away pants, underneath the fairly straightforward plot beats of your average frustrated dancer movie, you could find both hard bodies in thongs and a pretty astute treatise on American economics — a tragedy about the working class. (Yes, seriously.)
Magic Mike XXL jettisons the All About Eve-esque plot machinations of the first film (as well as “The Kid” character who set them in motion, thankfully). In fact, it essentially jettisons any semblance of a plot at all. It’s as frivolous as you’d expect a summer sequel to a movie about male strippers would be, but it’s hardly disposable. Like the original, it’s a rarity, but in a different way. Magic Mike XXL is less about this gang of hunks, and more about the people who drop singles to ogle them. (Women, mostly.) Watch Magic Mike XXL, and you’re not really watching a movie about male strippers — it’s the rare movie that’s true subject is its own audience. If you’ve seen Magic Mike XXL, chances are, you’re somewhere in this movie.
I can confirm this, because at the screening I went to, I was one of about four males in the theater, and it was a full house. The ladies were out in full force — mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, they were drinking wine and laughing and cat-calling the sexy guys on screen, clearly having a great time. In other words, it was a lot like most bachelorette parties, complete with exotic dancing.
Unlike almost any other movie put out by a major studio, Magic Mike XXL doesn’t care at all what straight males think of it — even less than the first Magic Mike did. (Despite the titillating strip sequences, Soderbergh’s original had a certain masculine bro vibe, largely sidelining the ladies.) There’s no gratuitous female nudity here to appease heterosexual men, and why would there be? They’re not at this movie.
Instead, Magic Mike XXL positions itself as a treat for the underserved — namely, gay men, African-American ladies, and women over forty, three audiences Hollywood almost never makes movies for. You could neatly divide the movie into sections titled “Something For The Gay Dudes” and “This Part’s For You, Sisters!” — it’s that obvious, and that goes a long way in making Magic Mike XXL as charming as it is. It makes no apologies for what it is, no concessions for what it isn’t. It is not only a movie about male strippers that will appeal to women and gay men, it is also a movie that gladly depicts women and gay men enjoying said male strippers — no angst or baggage, just pure pleasure. That probably shouldn’t be such a novelty, but it is. And that’s what a strip show like the one put on by the Kings of Tampa is meant to do — allow you to forget your worries for a night and just give in to the fun. In that sense, XXL definitely delivers.The plot, for what it is, has Channing Tatum’s Mike Lane returning to form, taking a holiday from his small but successful furniture business after being ditched by his love interest from the first movie. (I didn’t mind Cody Horn’s flat affect in the first film as much as some people did, but I’m also not sorry she’s absent from this sequel. Her replacement for this film, Amber Heard’s moody photographer Zoe, fares a tad better.) Mike rejoins his old bros on a road trip to a stripper convention where they plan to perform their old routines. Along the way, he convinces them to ditch their fireman and sailor costumes and instead, figure out how to express their own true selves through their “art.” Mike already learned to follow his dream in the first movie; the sequel has the rest of the gang following suit.
The film manages to work in echoes of the first film’s American economics theme in sly ways, as most of these guys have something else they’d rather do for a living than collecting singles for taking their clothes off. “Male entertainment” wasn’t anyone’s first career choice, but life often has us doing something we’d rather not do for money, while we wait on Plan B or C or X to work out. Magic Mike XXL is about embracing your day job (or night job, as it goes in this case), about putting something of yourself into it and making the best of whatever that may be. That theme may not resonate as well if these guys were all, say, accountants, but it works nicely here.
These very basic character arcs would be enough for a perfectly average sequel, but XXL is much less concerned about male angst than its predecessor was. More weight is given to how the audience feels — which is unusual in any movie, but especially unusual in one in which the major roles are still mostly populated by men. The stripping sequences focus less on the moves and machinations of guys taking their clothes off, more on how much the women are digging it. The audience in the big strip-off is filled with women of all colors and sizes — real women, not typical supermodel-y extras — and they look like they’re loving every minute of it. (Most of them probably were — if you’re going to be an extra, why wouldn’t you want to be an extra in Magic Mike? They provide the strippers and the singles!) It’s a fun reflection of what we all, in the actual audience, paid to see — what’s on screen is essentially exactly what’s happening in the movie theater, except with less money flying around, because we spent all our dollar bills on popcorn.
Yes, the extras are plenty well cast, and good for you on that, Magic Mike XXL. But what’s even more novel are the “set pieces.” Before the big strip-off in the finale, we visit a gay bar, a strip club for African-American “queens,” and a gathering of post-menopausal women guzzling wine. These are not locations you’ll find in any other summer sequel, it goes without saying. (Though I’d argue that any one of them would have vastly improved Jurassic World.) Writer Reid Carolin takes his sweet time in each sequence, to the extent that any forward momentum of the plot virtually stops to pay these demographics tribute.
First, Mike and the gang happily unleash their gayest dance moves at the gay bar presided over by a drag queen named Tory Snatch, and no one has to make any sort of “no homo” joke. These guys are straight — even Matt Bomer’s vain pretty boy Ken (though the actor who plays him is not). We get it, and we don’t need it spelled out for us, thank gawd. I doubt we’ve fully entered an era in which straight male characters don’t have to make gay jokes just to double-confirm their heterosexuality all the time, but Magic Mike XXL is a heartening sign of changing times. When was the last time you saw a bunch of straight guys hanging out in a gay bar in a movie, actually having a good time, and not even once reminding us that they don’t swing that way?
Next, the film introduces its Matthew McConaughey stand-in — Mike’s former mentor and paramour, Rome (played by a surprisingly up-to-the-task Jada Pinkett Smith, who’s pretty great). If this isn’t the film’s longest sequence, it certainly feels that way, as we take plenty of time away from our lead characters to observe various African-American hotties, including Michael Strahan and Donald Glover, strip down to their underthings. Technically, most of this is totally inconsequential the movie’s narrative, but it’s hard not to enjoy Rome’s confidence-boosting sermons as her “queens” get their laps danced. We see that Rome has built an entire business out of making women feel good about themselves, and that’s pretty cool, really.
Finally, in the very best of the three pit stops on the way to the big show, Andie MacDowell (!) of all people pops up as Nancy, a wealthy divorcee who is utterly delighted to have her home invaded by her daughter’s stripper buddies during a pinot noir-drenched girls’ night. Like the previous two sequences, XXL could easily have resorted to reducing these women of a certain age to cheap jokes, but there’s not a hungry cougar in the bunch. Instead, there’s a rather beautiful moment in which Ken tells a shy married woman that her husband needs to appreciate her for the gorgeous creature she is. We understand that Ken is, essentially, doing his job — making women who are not often fawned over feel desirable for a night — and so does she. But he’s also doing her a great kindness, the kind of kindness you wouldn’t expect in a summer comedy. Magic Mike XXL doesn’t punish its extras or supporting female characters for desiring our male leads, no matter how old or big or gay they might be.
Magic Mike XXL cuts “male entertainment” down to its essence. These guys truly enjoy giving women pleasure, whether it’s Mike trying to turn Zoe’s frown upside-down, or Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) performing a ridiculous Backstreet Boys striptease in a convenience store trying to make a sourpuss clerk crack a smile. Yes, sure, the fact that all these hot male strippers are such nice, thoughtful, respectful guys underneath is totally a fantasy — in the same way that almost every action movie has a perfectly idealized female for its hero to smooch in the end. Fair’s fair — it’s long past time for the women to get their wish fulfillment, and that’s what this summer sequel is all about.
Magic Mike XXL probably has less male nudity (or near-nudity) than the first Magic Mike, and most of the dance scenes aren’t quite as inspired — that doesn’t seem to be director Gregory Jacobs’ specialty. (It wouldn’t have hurt to give us an extra few minutes of Channing Tatum doing his thing at any point. Who would complain?) The movie is clearly more concerned with giving us a good time than giving us a raunchy sexy time, and I’m fine with that. It may have been even more daring to deliver a similar story that really hammered home the sexuality, but ultimately, women aren’t going to strip shows for masturbatory material — they’re going to have fun. It’s not about getting off. (There’s a whole other genre of movie for that.) I’d argue that Magic Mike XXL delivers what any show at Chippendale’s aims to — a campy, slightly risque night of fun and laughter.
Will Magic Mike XXL end up on this year’s Top Ten list? For most critics, doubtful. For me? It’s definitely possible. Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL are quite different, yet feel of a piece. The first one delves deeper, but I had a better time with the sequel. They’re both deceptively smart, and this one really knows its audience. We know it knows us, because we’re in the movie. It was made for us.