Review: “Magic Mike XXL” Has a Big, Bulging Heart

10.20_ 2316.tiffI’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more improbable sequel than Magic Mike XXL. The 2012 original, rather improbable in its own right, was a surprisingly introspective art movie about male strippers, directed by audacious master director Steven Soderbergh and developed with the help of stripper-turned-actor Channing Tatum during his ascension to household name status. The movie didn’t exactly scream for a follow-up, working well as a unified piece that was a little slow for my taste but harnessed an infectious sense of fun and the intrigue of seeing sexuality explored from a rarely-seen perspective (that is, a female perspective — definitely not mainstream cinema’s forte). Still, here we are with a movie that is completely different in structure and tone, yet somehow doubles as a natural continuation of the original’s guided tour through the unseen world of, as our protagonists prefer to call it, ‘adult entertainment’.

Unlike the first movie’s unusual combination of blithe bromantic comedy and slow, soul-searching drama, XXL is so much its own beast that labeling it a sequel seems to sell it short. It’s a far more mainstream movie in the best possible ways, a light and airy entertainment piece through and through, sitting somewhere between a goofy road trip (or bro’d trip) comedy and a snazzy Step Up-style dance flick. Complemented by striking camera work from Soderbergh (who has claimed he is done directing theatrical films but thankfully returns as cinematographer), a killer soundtrack and dedicated, charming performances, director Gregory Jacobs gives us the best kind of sequel, one with total confidence in its direction and purpose. The film’s unfettered sense of confidence and autonomy is perhaps its greatest draw… at least if you’re a straight male.

XXL wears its simplicity on its sleeve with a quickly-established ‘let’s put on one last show’ storyline that sends the Kings of Tampa (minus McConaughey and Pettyfer) from Miami to Myrtle Beach to participate in a stripping convention (what a world we live in) before they all move on from the industry. The film is largely episodic in structure, taking our crew (Tatum as the eponymous Magic Mike, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez and driver/MC Gabriel Iglesias) from stop to stop on the way to their final destination. Believe it or not, there are pretty much zero actual stakes in this movie, with the audience never truly made to worry whether or not the guys will make it to the convention. Instead, this is a movie that is all about hanging out with these characters and enjoying their wacky, sometimes touching exploits. This doesn’t sound like it would work at all, but it does thanks to surprisingly well-written dialogue, which is often as genuinely, delightfully hilarious as you would find in your average R-rated comedy.

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Whereas the first Mike offered an inward-facing look at the stripping world (with the focus on a single club), XXL stays true to its title by taking a much-expanded look outward, not just narratively but thematically as well. If the original sought to answer why certain men would choose to strip as a career, XXL instead explores what the appeal of male strippers are for women. And not just the kind of white, pretty girls you see in most male-oriented movies. Jacobs and screenwriter Reid Carolin smartly take into account women of varying size, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation on various stops (for example, a drag show, a black strip club run by Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rome, and the manor of Andie MacDowell as a horny mom with her middle-aged friends). In doing so, Magic Mike XXL becomes one of the most progressive mainstream films with regards to women (alongside Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids and Spy), acknowledging the dynamism of the female experience and female sexuality in a way that the rest of the industry tends to bluntly ignore despite its constant presence in everyday life.

But enough about Magic Mike’s social ramifications; this is a movie built to offer women the kind of escapist fun they can’t normally find at the theater, and it luckily overachieves in that I, too, was able to have a ton of fun with it. Some scenes, such as a particularly notable gas station excursion, are absolutely hilarious regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The dance sequences, front and center in this installment, are stunningly choreographed, wonderfully shot, and often use the settings and props in inventive ways.  Even though I personally wasn’t excited by all the shiny male abs on screen, nor was I stimulated by the constant thrusting and grinding, I was certainly still able to appreciate the fluidity and creativity of the routines themselves. I was really only a let down in the final fifteen minutes, which is an explosive, largely wordless paean to half-naked dudes that kind of resembles the male stripper equivalent of Whiplash‘s grand finale. In these last minutes, the movie does kind of rely on the audience being physically attracted to the strippers. And since I wasn’t, I unfortunately found myself isolated in a way that I hadn’t been previously, which isn’t a good thing to have happen at the end of a movie. At least they threw the straight guys a bone in the form of Amber Heard.

The performances are all-around exceptional. While the strippers could have easily been written and performed as stereotypical douche-bag bros, here they are all well-intentioned, kind, selfless and pragmatic. They are respectful to any and all women they meet. Before you argue what the odds are that male strippers could really be this perfect: it doesn’t really matter. These actors play the characters so well that they make you believe they really are this unbelievably altruistic, considerate and big-hearted. I never thought I’d want to hang out with people like this, but the film truly surprised me with its top-class characterizations. Like its treatment of women, the movie is respectful and empathetic towards the wide male spectrum as well.

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Tatum has gotten immeasurably more talented at comedy in the space between the two Magic Mike movies, within which he put in great comedic work in White House Down and 22 Jump Street. Specifically his Jump Street roles have helped him nail the deadpan, self-deprecating knuckle-head routine and a bit of Jonah Hill seems to have rubbed off on him here, with his off-the-cuff delivery which appears improvised even when it clearly isn’t. New cast members such as Pinkett Smith and MacDowell are fantastic additions, each standing in for a specific ‘type’ of woman without resorting to stereotypes or caricatures. Donald Glover is in this too, though he’s strangely wasted here. I guess they just wanted someone who could act, rap and look good all at the same time.

Unfortunately, there is some significant drag towards the middle of the film, most strongly felt around Pinkett Smith’s introduction. As different relationships and backstories are filled in, the lack of any tangible conflict becomes glaringly apparent and it becomes a challenge to care about these new characters and the revelations they bring with them. Twenty minutes could have been shaved off to remove some of the unnecessary narrative fat. In addition, while I’m glad she’s in the movie for obvious reasons, the romance angle between Amber Heard and Channing Tatum was obviously tacked-on and there is never an ounce of believable chemistry between them. It’s the one major element of the plot that feels forced, like they had to do it if they wanted to get this movie made. It’s antithetical to the rebellious nature of so much of the rest of the movie.

Magic Mike XXL shares the same winning characteristics as its beefcake cast of characters. While aesthetic attractiveness sure holds the eyes, it’s the movie’s respectfulness, it’s abundance of heart, it’s confident swagger and it’s independent spirit that makes it such a refreshing adventure. Given how radically different it is from the original, I can’t really call XXL an ‘improvement’, though I certainly found much more to enjoy this time around. The film isn’t nearly perfect, but it is one of purest entertainment experiences of the summer, right up alongside the more explosive summer blockbusters. It also stands as one of the bigger developments in the depiction and treatment of women in American cinema. If you’re a straight woman (or a gay man), I can assure you this movie is worth seeing in theaters. And all those straight men who straight-up refuse to give a movie like this the time of day are missing out on something special, even if it can’t possibly deliver the same kind of pleasure to guys that it can to ravenous, squealing girls.

MAGIC MIKE XXL - 2015 FILM STILL - Pictured: STEPHEN 'TWITCH' BOSS as Malik, CHANNING TATUM as Mike and AMBER HEARD as Zoe - Photo Credit: Claudette Barius Copyright: © 2015 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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