Steven Soderbergh's 2012 Magic Mike was a cocktease. The ads tempted audiences with sweaty chests and thrusting crotches, but after Soderbergh lured us in to his all-male strip club, he turned on the lights to show us the squalor. His hunks were drugged and morally decayed. The women — the sober ones, at least — sized them up as worthless, pressing them to put on pants and get real jobs.
Its sequel, Magic Mike XXL, begins with its own fake-out. Mike (Channing Tatum) has managed to quit the business, buy an engagement ring for his girl, and launch a business designing rustic headboards for Tampa bohemians. (A sly gag is that these cheeseballs scheme to cash in on the hipsterification of the normal world — one dreams of a food truck that sells artisanal probiotic froyo.) But Mike's dreams haven't worked out. And then lumbering beast Tarzan (Kevin Nash, whom Mickey Rourke should sue for trademark infringement) phones to tell Mike that their snake-hipped former boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), is dead.
He means dead to him — Dallas ditched the club for the casino gold rush of Macau — but XXL lets the misunderstanding linger for long, glum minutes as we groan that we've been tricked, again, into attending a wake. Then it cracks a beer and toasts the boys' freedom. What a relief, for both us and the gang — Tarzan, pretty-boy Ken (Matt Bomer), loudmouth Tito (Adam Rodriguez), towering Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), and their joker DJ Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias). Dallas picked their outfits, choreographed their routines, and didn't give a damn if, say, his hot fireman was phobic of fire, a reign of tyranny akin to what Lou Pearlman forced on their Florida kinsmen, the Backstreet Boys and 'NSync. But unlike singers, this crew has never viewed its craft as art. Face it: A serious stripper is an oxymoron. So now what?
If Soderbergh was slapping us voyeurs on the wrists, this sequel couldn't be more delighted to put on a show. It's a practically plotless party. Director Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh's longtime A.D. working, presumably, with his benediction, doesn't see his studs as callow grifters. Says new kid Donald Glover, "We're like healers." In that analogy, women are the patients, and the boys' caravan to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach is Doctors Without Borders. At pit stops, the fellows disembark to delight the opposite sex (or, in one case, a bar of gay men unamused by their drag antics). Sometimes, they dance for free, and once or twice, they even let the ladies speak, like when they wander into a den of middle-aged Southern belles drunk on fine wines flowing from their aristocratic, gorgeous hostess, Andie MacDowell. There's also a bemused-temptress part for Amber Heard, who appears out of the dark on a midnight beach, all backlit blond hair, cigarette smoke, and attitude. Mostly, however, the women they meet are wordless, screaming fans or an attentive audience simply giggling at their bro jokes, which is hard to grouse about when the women in the theater — myself included — were doing the same.
There's a sense that the genders have inverted, an idea Jacobs and screenwriter Reid Carolin put on the screen but barely explore. The dudes dance because they're desperate for money, yet every woman in their world is flush with cash. The ultrarich give the men cars and spring for hotel rooms. But, comparatively, even the average female onscreen here is a tycoon. In the climax, the ladies shed tens of thousands of singles until they literally bury the men in mint green. They're paying — somehow — for fantasy. What, then, is their reality? They complain about offstage men who are frigid cads, but even these good-looking charmers prefer to be in a boys-only van bonding with one another.
As for the men, they've been directed to ape Marilyn Monroe. They aren't sexy with a grown man's confidence, the way George Clooney can look at a woman like he's picturing her without clothes. Instead, they're daffy and insecure, almost innocent. XXL is a topless, sticky-wet movie where almost no one is having sex. The boys aren't even grown up enough to say the word, preferring to ask, "Did you bangy?" They're into the game for validation — can they make women swoon? — which boils over in a riotous scene in which Manganiello, an exaggeration of male romance-novel beauty, nervously lampoons his own attractiveness in a Quik-E-Mart, pouring bottled water and Cheetos on his chest. Monroe on that subway grate would give him a thumbs-up.
Only when a mature woman, Jada Pinkett Smith playing a frosty madam, saunters into the frame does sex become erotic. She challenges Mike to impress her, and for a minute, you're not sure he can. Tatum's face is as transparent as a windowpane. He stays slack-jawed until an idea blurts directly from his brain to his mouth. What's brilliant about his acting style is that his character feels raw and real, even as his body flips into contortions he must have practiced for weeks. Like the best dancers, he makes his movements feel improvised even when they're not — and we can tell by the way Jacobs wisely circles around, filming long, planned takes of Tatum bouncing all over the set doing handstands, leaping across chairs, and spanking women with his own shirt. He's selling nonsense fantasy in a movie that's nonsense fantasy, but boy, is Tatum the real deal!