Let’s not forget all the stripping. There’s plenty of sexual thrusting to go around.
Despite being a sequel and technically part and parcel of Hollywood’s opposition to new, original content, Magic Mike XXL is a brilliant piece of counter programming. In a summer dominated by reboots and superhero movies, MMXXL is at once a thoughtful throwback and a gleeful example of how to cater to audiences without pandering to them.
Picking up three years after the conclusion of the original, Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) has retired from the lap dance game and is running his own custom furniture business. Frustrated from being unable to provide his one employee with health care and feeling nostalgic for the days when he used to grind his pelvis on strangers to old Ginuwine songs, he embarks on a road trip with the remnants of his old running crew (Kevin Nash, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello and Adam Rodriguez) for one last ride together, culminating at a legendary stripper convention where they plan to end this chapter with a bang. Along the way, they encounter welcome additions to the cast, like Donald Glover (as a crooning dancer), a scene stealing Jada Pinkett-Smith (as a club owner and former flame of Mike’s) and Andie MacDowell (with a small but wonderful part as a rich cougar.)
The film’s central conceit is a structural answer to the real world problem of losing the original film’s best and worst characters (Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer, respectively.) By dropping the gang’s ring leader and most cloying rookie, it leaves the boys struggling with their identities, a convenient bit of internal conflict that provides the necessary heft to keep this from being a two hour .gif of a cheesecake calendar.
What’s very fascinating about MMXXL is how purely enjoyable it manages to be, given its paper thin premise. Cobbled from a script written on bar napkins and stitched together from a fundamental misreading of every screenwriting bible ever penned, the story, inasmuch as this film has one, is little more than a series of scenes that happen to occur in an order that gets the cast from point A to point B. The film unfolds as an episodic mixtape of meandering vignettes, from the sexy, to the inspiring to the legitimately hilarious. There are helpful obstacles along the way to suggest the silhouette of actual drama (a bus breaking down, the convention’s arbitrary rules) but no one is ever really in danger, metaphorical or otherwise. This predicament may call to mind the debacle of the Entourage movie, but there’s an emotional honesty to the bromance at MMXXL‘s heart that Doug Ellin wishes he was capable of crafting.
There’s one major force at work helping this potential disaster transcend its station and that’s Steven Soderbergh. The original film’s assistant director is the credited helmer this time out, but Soderbergh is both the cinematographer and editor here, under his two reliable pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard. While the principal thematic hang-ups that drove the first film as well as The Girlfriend Experience (the economics of sex work) take a backseat, his stylistic hand is very much felt throughout the picture, with his steady 70s zooms and unfettered, open framing. The perspective is more inherently artificial than a documentarian’s, but there’s something classical about the visual approach that is warm and comforting. At times, it feels like you’re watching The Graduate. The construction of the images is so natural and unassuming that it grounds the neon lit hedonism, like a Mike Nichols for the YOLO set.
That naturalism would be a lot harder to swallow if the cast wasn’t so at home with one another. Yes, the assembled hunks will collectively have even the straightest of bros questioning their placement on the Kinsey Scale, but it’s more than just looking good and being proficient dancers. One of the reasons comedies centered around male relationships tend to be so monotonous is they focus on the same shortsighted beats and never feel as lived in as real friendships tend to be. There’s a lot of spectacle in MMXXL but there are some tender moments between the guys (specifically a great burying the hatchet scene between Tatum and Bomer) that wouldn’t be out of place in Waiting To Exhale. Everyone is just so likable and magnetic that you can’t bring yourself to care about the film being twenty minutes too long and meandering more than it should. You’ll forgive an extended sequence where Manganiello’s “Big Dick” Richie dances for a gas station attendant to The Backstreet Boys while high on Molly, if only because it’s one of the finest pieces of visual comedy of the last five years. At one point, Tatum popped the audience just by saying he liked Oreos more than red velvet cake. If Chris Pratt’s frustrating adorableness helped Jurassic World make half a billion dollars, the ceiling on this thing is gonna be pretty high.
Let’s not forget all the stripping. There’s plenty of sexual thrusting to go around, and Soderbergh shooting all of the dance sequences with nice, clean coverage gives a sort of Gene Kelly bravura to all the air humping and pec wiggling. The film builds up to the stripper convention quite nicely, but that suspense is only worth it if the boys and their brand new routines land. Luckily, the execution is sufficient. Ending a film with twenty minutes of “male entertainment” works so well here because the dance scenes, hot though they may be, are less about sex than personal expression and artistic intimacy. The film makes it clear that being a male stripper is less about having abs and good rhythm and more about understanding your audience and providing something they’re not getting elsewhere. In that regard, this entire movie is one long private dance and every other summer release is a neglecting lover who doesn’t understand foreplay.
MMXXL uses the bare bones justification for a money grabbing sequel to tell a really fun story with characters that feel more like old friends than stereotypes as the film progresses. It’s a movie that knows its purpose, but doesn’t let that limit its wingspan. With eye candy, laughs, and one of the year’s finest needle drop soundtracks, Tatum and the boys spend two hours preparing for what is essentially an elaborate heist, but the dollar bills that rain down on them are all a distraction. They’re really here to steal our hearts.