MAGIC MIKE XXL: Extra Extra Lame
by Pam Grady
Where in the world is Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” on the Magic Mike XXL soundtrack? It’s a glaring omission in a film where the now-itinerant ecdysiasts are so often called upon to lay their crotches, if not their hands, on frustrated women whose men just don’t get what a girl wants. These aging Peter Pans might not have a clue what life has in store past their last hurrah at a Myrtle Beach male strippers’ convention, but they know the inner hearts of ladies—at least those willing to shower them with a “tsunami” of dollar bills. If that sounds daft, it is in a sequel that promises big, dumb summer fun and a showcase for Channing Tatum’s not inconsiderable dancing talent, but falls short on both counts.
The original Magic Mike had a big black hole in the space occupied by its blank of a lead, Alex Pettyfer, but the rest of the cast and characters were solid and the film got a big lift from a sharp, sexy, charismatic performance from Matthew McConaughey as the Kings of Tampa’s cynical manager and emcee. Both actors are gone in this sequel and so is the evocative world that director Stephen Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin created in that first film. Instead, three years after Magic Mike (Tatum) walked out on the troupe and left stripping behind to start his furniture design business, the Kings of Tampa have been cut loose. With adult life beckoning—since they are all well over 35—they recruit Mike for their final show.
Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez, and WWF wrestler Kevin Nash as Mike’s fellow dancers, and Gabriel Iglesias as DJ/emcee Tobias reprise their roles in the comedy drama, which gets off to a promising start with Mike dancing alone in his workshop. Tatum has his best moments in this early scene, displaying the moves that brought him to moviegoers’ attention nearly a decade ago in Step Up . But once he joins his pals on the road, the thin story rumbles along in fits and stops. There’s an overnight stay at a beach; a layover at a private Savannah strip club where Mike recruits new emcee Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith, a poor substitute for McConaughey, although her repeated use of the word “queens” to describe the strippers’ female clientele ought to engender a few drinking games) and two of her dancers, Andre (Donald Glover) and Malik (Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss); and a night spent with a sexually frustrated wealthy divorcee (Andie MacDowell) and her posse before the group finally lands at the anticlimactic convention.
For all the talk of how these sensitive stripteasers know what the ladies want, there are precious few women to put their theory — namely: all that ladies need is a man to listen to them and maybe give them a lap dance — to the test. Even Pinkett-Smith’s role is little more than a cameo. That means the focus is solely on the men and their journey toward — what? There is little conflict and much of anything resembling actual drama in Magic Mike XXL . Oh, the boys argue amongst themselves about the direction of the show; Mike quarrels/flirts with Zoe (Amber Heard), the photographer he meets on the beach who pointlessly pops up from time to time; and there is clearly bad blood between Mike and Rome, although that, too, is quickly resolved. None of it adds up to very much. Even as a bromance, the movie falls flat. Most of the time, it feels like an excuse for the actors to strut their individual talents: Watch Channing and Boss dance, Bomer and Glover sing, Manganiello and Rodriguez cut up, and Nash do whatever it is Nash does.
Reid Carolin is back on board as screenwriter, but the fizzy charm he created in Magic Mike has vanished. The pity is it wouldn’t have been hard to create fun, escapist entertainment out of the convention and its competitive element. Instead, by the final lap dance, that early high engendered by Mike’s solo moves has long since dissipated. The guys are sexy, to be sure, but they are better served by Magic Mike XXL ’s poster than by anything in the movie.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
The 2012 hit Magic Mike was the kind of movie people invariably call a “guilty pleasure”—meaning they feel a bit ashamed for enjoying it, in this case because it was the type of enterprise whose main appeal is showing a lot of well-toned actor skin. But actually, Magic Mike was pretty guilt-free. Yes, it was about male strippers, but this was no Showgirls , or even distaff Coyote Ugly .
Inspired by producer/star Channing Tatum’s own experiences in that profession before he broke into acting, and sporting Steven Soderbergh’s usual directorial intelligence, it approached a potentially cheesy subject with just the right amount of humorous lightness to offset the fully indulged (but not dumb) sexploitation content. Reid Carolin’s screenplay wasn’t exactly gritty drama, yet it managed more depth than required—something especially borne out at the end, when the stray-puppyish boy (Alex Pettyfer) Tatum’s character saves from possible homelessness turns out not so salvageable after all. Having been introduced to a life in which sex and drugs come easy, he couldn’t care less about following his erstwhile mentor into a more “grownup” future. It was the kind of understated, unsentimental touch that made Magic Mike feel emotionally grounded, even as it featured plenty of hunks gyrating under disco lights.
It is depressing, then, to greet the new Magic Mike XXL and realize almost immediately that this is exactly the kind of brain-dead cash-in its predecessor wasn’t. Tatum is back, as are some subsidiary players; so is Carolin. But title notwithstanding, the movie is entirely deflating. Not ten minutes in, you may find yourself wondering: They had three years to come up with a sequel concept, and this was the best they could do? Was a script even in place when they started filming? Many scenes here feel semi-improvised—and sad to say, this film is proof that not all actors excel in such circumstances. Some, in fact, are better off just shutting up and taking off their clothes.
On that level, at least, Magic Mike XXL delivers, if in perfunctory fashion. But between opportunities for body-baring, there has to be some pretense of story, and hoo man… let’s just say, more thought when into the narrative complexities of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. We re-encounter Tatum’s Mike at his post-stripper dream job of running a custom furniture making business. But it’s struggling financially, and upon learning the old “Kings of Tampa” (minus Matthew McConaughey’s impresario Dallas, who’s reportedly gone to Europe, and Pettyfer’s not-even-referenced Adam) are heading to a stripper convention for one last competitive hurrah, he decides to reenlist.
That’s it. That’s the plot. They leave, then they arrive (in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina), and with about five seconds’ rehearsal time knock everyone’s socks off—well, at least those of the onscreen audience — at the big, attenuated contest climax. Still, 90 minutes or so of time must be killed in between, and apparently character development and other upscale niceties aren’t on writer Carolin’s agenda this time.
All he can come up with is a lamely quarrelsome comedy road trip interrupted by three dumb set pieces, as the reunited beefsteaks stop to be fed and watered. First, there’s amateur strip night at a gay bar (albeit the only-in-Hollywood-movies kind whose clientele includes a lot of straight housewives, so as not to challenge mainstream viewers too much). Second, a visit to a ridiculous sort of posh ladies’ bordello presided over by Tatum’s onetime benefactress Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), in which squealing women of all colors are gyrated over — and apparently nothing more — by brawny breakdancing homies. Then the boys detour to a Gone With the Wind-worthy country manse where it’s a different kind of ladies’ night, with Andie McDowell and other horny, divorced Southern belles “of certain age” ecstatic at such unattached masculine pulchritude landing in their midst.
If it can’t be smart, there’s no reason Magic Mike XXL shouldn’t at least be fun — and it kinda sorta is, after a while, albeit in a lazy, clock-punching manner. But you have to lower your expectations severely to even get that much reward. While the first film had clever stage routines that cajoled and cosseted the performers into appearing credible-enough dancers, this followup doesn’t even try to pull that off. Instead, it throws up its hands at any principal save Tatum being anything but a near-hopeless mover. The gay bar sequence, in which each of them does a brief turn, is downright embarrassing; the climax, where each is supposed to show their “secret” talent (painting, dessert-making, singing, etc.), provides them with lame “skits” that excuse them from dancing at all. The onscreen audience goes wild, of course, making this a particularly egregious example of a movie forced to do its own, unconvincing cheerleading.
In the first film, we only got brief, colorful tastes of the established “King” personalities. Unfortunately, we get a lot more of them here, and it turns out there was nothing more to reveal — or at least Carolin couldn’t come up with anything. His idea of a humorous character hook is to make all American doll Ken (Matt Bomer, whose two moments of American Idol-esque singing we’ll refrain from commenting on) a New Age space case via the kinds of jokes that were stale 25 years ago. Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) just kinda smiles and flexes a lot; hulking Tarzan (ex-wrestler Kevin Nash) is, uh, hulking. Newcomer Tito (Adam Rodriguez) seems a cheerful fellow, but the script doesn’t define him beyond “Hey, I’m Puerto Rican!” Since Cody Horn isn’t back from the original, there’s a new love interest for Tatum in Amber Heard—but the minimal three scenes she gets suggest having a new “The Girl” was considered enough. Why bother actually giving her anything to do?
Even the ways in which Magic Mike XXL panders more overtly to a gay male audience (in addition to heterosexual women) feel canned, as if worked out by marketing researchers rather than creatives. The movie has a slick sheen, but ambles at a near-tedious even keel for two full hours. Longtime Soderbergh assistant director Gregory Jacobs provides no distinctive atmospherics or personality in his first major assignment after a couple of genre flicks. Doubtless everybody had fun making this (all those ab crunches aside). But couldn’t a little more effort have gone into making it fun, let alone memorable, for viewers? Any effort at all?
What makes Magic Mike XXL more irksome than just a routine ripoff of a sequel is that it squanders one palpably very good thing: Tatum, who since the original entry has proven himself to be more than just Manufactured Screen Hunk o’ Man #396 by confirming his comic chops (22 Jump Street ) and stretching his dramatic ones (Foxcatcher ). He may be jug-eared and have the almost-too-pumped body of a Marine drill sergeant, but he’s turning out to be a keeper, much as such initially disposable-seeming physical specimens as McConaughey and Brad Pitt took their time revealing themselves as considerably more than mere pinups.
Plus, as previously noted, the man can dance. Oh, not in any traditional Hollywood-musical fashion: His stiff attempt to be Fred to Charlize Theron’s Ginger on the Oscars a couple years ago made that clear. But he’s a regular Gene Kelly when it comes to hip-hop bump-n-grind, as showcased in this movie’s best moment: An early, regrettably brief scene where a song Mike likes comes on the radio, and he can’t help busting a move or three in his furniture workshop. He also gets decent showcases at the bordella and at the finale, where he does a sort of mirror-routine duet with Steven Boss as one of Pinkett-Smith’s protégées. (Don’t worry, it’s not a gay thing — they each get a thrilled-to-death woman to dry-hump between backflips.) More than the other cast members, he manages to survive the trivial material on sheer charm and the occasional inventive performance beat.
But those couple minutes of Tatum dancing alone in his garage are the only moments of inspiration, dynamism and charisma in Magic Mike XXL . If the first Magic Mike was a “guilty pleasure,” the sequel’s guilt is shouldered solely by the filmmakers. There’s something really galling about realizing a big-budget Hollywood sequel’s makers didn’t even try to make it good — they knew they had a built-in audience, so they put in the absolute least effort they could get away with. It’s a form of contempt, and you just paid twelve bucks for it.