“Picaresque” might seem like an odd word for a male-stripper comedy produced by a major film studio, but that’s the most accurate adjective for Magic Mike XXL. Where the first Magic Mike was a Steven Soderbergh dramedy whose trailers made it look like a celebrity Chippendales revue, the sequel is maybe a little too self-aware, bending over backward and showing off its rippling abs in an attempt to appeal to the rowdy gaggles of (mostly) women currently filling their purses with mini bottles of champagne in preparation for the midnight show.
Director and longtime Soderbergh AD Gregory Jacobs keeps a toned-down version of the Instagram-filter look from the first Magic Mike, but with his former boss serving as DP and camera operator, that’s to be expected. The humdrum Florida milieu at the beginning of the film—where we catch up with Mike (Channing Tatum), curiously unfulfilled despite achieving his dream of opening his own custom furniture business—also seems to suggest that we’re in for more of the same. But all that changes as soon as Mike, still (inwardly, presumably) reeling from a failed marriage proposal, decides to go on the road with the guys for one last bump ’n’ grind. (Cody Horn, who played Tatum’s love interest in the first film, must not have been available for the sequel, as her rejection of Mike serves to explain her absence. Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer are similarly explained away with a few lines of dialogue about how they ditched the Kings Of Tampa for a gig in Macau.)
The guys are on their way to Myrtle Beach for an unnamed stripper convention—when they finally get there, the marquee just says “2015 Stripper Convention”—where they’ll perform in a striptease revue that, in most films, would have a cash prize that would allow them to open their own club or artisan fro-yo business or whatever. Here, the revue is not a competition, which is typical; each time the guys are confronted with a problem, someone, usually a wealthy older woman, steps in to solve it, giving the movie little to no suspense. Still, they have to get there, or else there would be nothing pushing the plot forward at all.
Here’s where the “picaresque” bit comes in, with most of the movie (which runs a numbing 115 minutes) devoted to meandering between excuses for the guys to start stripping. Like an old Hollywood musical, Magic Mike XXL takes place in a universe close but parallel to our own, a fantasy realm where people randomly break out into song—or, in this case, breakdance-influenced dance numbers set to ’90s sex jams. Speaking of: Presumably because Dallas isn’t there to keep the boys in line, the stripteases here are full contact, and the men fling female audience members around like rag dolls, turning them upside down, humping their faces, and, in one memorable routine, physically picking one up and placing her in a sex swing.
That sounds ridiculous and fun, and it is, for a while. But the downside of all this fan service is that it makes the more focus-group-approved aspects of the film quite obvious. Watching Magic Mike XXL, four apparent demographics for the film emerge. First are millennials, whom the movie hopes will make GIFs of Joe Manganiello humping a convenience-store floor in a fit of drug-and-Backstreet Boys-induced ecstasy. Mopey hippie dream girl Amber Heard—who is mostly there for Tatum to be charming on—is the audience stand-in for this demographic, all chunky silver rings and delicate star tattoos and eating cake alone because she’s so over it. See also: Harry Potter references.
Then there’s the gay community, which Magic Mike XXL smartly courts not only by sending its stars out to gyrate at the L.A. Pride Parade a couple of weeks back, but with a drag-club scene where the guys win gas money as well as the hearts of Florida’s LGBT community by voguing. (Not that there’s any real competition.) That’s a brief stopover, however; the movie takes its time seducing the number three demographic, African-Americans, with a long, multi-part sequence where various oiled-up hunks—including Michael Strahan and Donald Glover, in Childish Gambino mode—are trotted out for the amusement of the members of a private club owned by bossy older woman Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Finally, there’s the “cougar” crowd, which Mike and friends encounter when they go to visit a girl they met at a beach party back when we were still somewhat tethered to reality. Andie MacDowell appears as Nancy, a bored Southern housewife who spends her days drinking expensive wine with her friends now that her ex-husband has come out of the closet. What Nancy—and, by extension, the demographic she represents—needs is a virile man to make her feel beautiful again, a service the movie is more than happy to provide. MacDowell and Pinkett Smith, both assertive, flirtatious, and in positions of power, should provide plenty of fodder for thinkpieces about the female gaze in the weeks to come. (Pinkett Smith’s club/palatial Georgia mansion is called Domina, for the viewers who still don‘t get it.)
Among the men, the chemistry just isn’t there, as insanely charismatic people like Tatum and Glover exchange awkward glances, dead air hanging heavy between them as they recite self-referential—yep, there’s an “alright alright alright” reference—pop-culture laden patter. (A sub-21 Jump Street joke about catering to Twilight teenyboppers similarly falls just short of acknowledging that this movie just did the exact same thing with the Backstreet Boys an hour earlier.) Significantly, the most entertaining moments of the film come when the men shut their pretty mouths and dance; the striptease convention provides a few funny montages, and our heroes’ lengthy (no pun intended) routine starts off rather hokey, with individualized bits meant to reflect the guys’ hopes and dreams, but builds to a pretty impressive mirror routine featuring Tatum and Step Up veteran Stephen Boss.
It’s really not much of a spoiler to reveal that the Kings Of Tampa emerge triumphant from the stripper convention—what, you expected them to get humbled?—and the final scene sees them paling around on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk, the superficial conflict solved but none of the deeper questions addressed. What will these men do now that their stripping careers are over? Will Mike’s would-be fiancée come back? It doesn’t really matter. This entire movie is predicated on two truths: That women find Channing Tatum attractive, and that Channing Tatum can dance. Magic Mike XXL is a piece of arm candy, as shallow as a mud puddle and just as bright. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to hang out with.