Late in Magic Mike XXL, new in theaters, our reunited stripper—excuse me; male entertainer heroes are waiting backstage to perform at the 2015 stripper convention, or as it’s professionally known, “2015 Stripper Convention.” Though the purpose and possible reward for a performance slot at this convention are even vaguer than the rules at a Step Up dance off, the boys want to do their best, and one of them observes their competition performing a hilariously ludicrous stripper re-enactment of Twilight, to delighted shrieks from the crowd. Annoyed and dejected, he reports the vampire routine to his fellow entertainers. They grumble, but one of them concedes: it’s a smart business move. The rest are forced to agree.
I got where they were coming from as a viewer of Magic Mike XXL. To be clear, this movie is not Twilight-style pandering. It is, in fact, a well-assembled, sometimes smart, extremely likable, and oddly respectful good time. But Magic Mike XXL is also an unmistakable case study in giving the audience exactly what they want. Specifically, it gives to whatever audience went into Magic Mike expecting a bawdy stripper revue and disappointed by Steven Soderbergh’s funny and humane but still slightly chilly and more-than-slightly economics-conscious drama. Here is their reward for showing up: a sequel that more or less is the movie that Magic Mike advertised.
Yet in a sneaky way, XXL also represents a Soderbergh experiment—an experiment emeritus, of sorts, now that he has claimed retirement from directing movies. Having previously exploited the loophole of the “movies” half by directing episodes of the Cinemax TV series The Knick, he now turns to the “directing” loophole. Steven Soderbergh did not direct Magic Mike XXL; he did, however, shoot it and edit it, under his usual pseudonyms of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively, while his first AD, Gregory Jacobs, directed it. In that way, Magic Mike XXL feels like an experiment in authorship: how much difference can an editor and DP make or, on the other side, how much control can you exert when your former boss is running some of your most important equipment?
At first, the news of Soderbergh stepping aside both in general and for Magic Mike XXL filled me with dismay: when, then, would he complete the sexonomics trilogy that began with The Girlfriend Experience and continued with Magic Mike (which played, in its way, like The Boyfriend Experience)? But my L Mag editor Mark Asch astutely pointed out that the trilogy is already complete, because it’s not what I thought it was: Soderbergh’s Gina Carano-starred Haywire belongs in their too, because it’s really his Commoditized Body Trilogy—as Mark put it, all three movies feature stars in “roles derived from their off-screen careers” (I’d always felt a connection between Haywire and both its fellow non-actor-starrer Girlfriend and its fellow 2012 release Magic Mike, but as a Soderbergh acolyte will forever curse Mark for getting it so exactly right).
This means that XXL, despite returning a bunch of cast members and explaining the absence of those who aren’t there (McConaughey, Pettyfer, Cody Horn), and despite the striking static compositions and sometimes-yellowish hues, stands very much apart from the movie it sequelizes, at least for the Soderbergh hardcores. Yet in its own way, it’s even more The Boyfriend Experience, only now recast in a shinier, more positive (and less yellowish) light. While Magic Mike showed both the exuberance and the workaday grind of selling your body, XXL treats the same practice as a combination of sweet release and female healing. Tatum’s Mike has indeed started the custom furniture business he wanted in the first film, and agrees to accompany his still-stripping buddies as a road-trip lark, because, as illustrated in one of the movie’s very best scenes, he still gets the urge to gyrate when he hears his signature tune (Ginuwine’s “Pony”) in his workshop. I could have watched Tatum grind and jump his way around assorted woodworking machinery for two or three times what the movie offers.
So while Mike’s business isn’t easy, he’s not stripping for a cash infusion (again: I’m not certain that the guys stand to win anything beyond whatever $1 bills they can scrape up from the convention floor). He’s doing it for the love: of his buddies (who weren’t exactly his BFFs in the first movie, but whatever), and of The Ladies. He doesn’t use stripping to get into anyone’s pants, mind, not even to get over his girlfriend’s between-movies escape. Mike, and all of the guys in the movie, plus their mid-movie helicopter-madame played by Jada Pinkett Smith, seek to use Male Entertainment to fulfill female desires and fantasies, and to make them feel good about themselves. That is their explicitly and repeatedly stated aim. In other words, they’re a much nicer entourage than the guys in Entourage.
This perspective makes Magic Mike XXL especially warm, female-friendly, and sexuality-positive. It also defuses any thematic tension that might’ve stood a chance of propping up the plot’s lack of stakes. The stripping routines the guys perform are well-intentioned and playful; they’re also performed, essentially, with tons of spectators and zero partners. When Mike gets his new love interest Zoe (Amber Heard) onstage for the big climactic number, she’s not dancing with him; she’s just watching, from a very close vantage, and doesn’t seem pleasured so much as reluctantly amused and, eventually, charmed (and Heard makes surprisingly convincing giggly-embarrassed faces for an actress who always seems both unembarrassed and downright ballsy).
Though the team numbers aren’t as ambitious (and, in the climax, frequently interrupted by Pinkett-Smith’s MCing; she manages to draw things out longer than a McConaughey drawl, and with what looks like five times the effort), Magic Mike XXL does play more like a musical than its predecessor. Specifically, it has several hallmarks of the Step Up dance-competition movies where Tatum, in fact, got his start; this movie also includes Step Up alum Stephen “tWitch” Boss in a supporting role, as well as a big competition (or something) for which the boys must prepare new, last-minute routines with impossibly intricate choreography.
It’s interesting to watch sorta-musical numbers, including a Backstreet-scored showstopper for Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) unfold not in MTV-style overload, but at Soderbergh’s methodically cut pace, but you can feel the former director’s lack of complete control over the material, even when he’s behind the camera and in the editing room. The techniques of XXL are not so different than Magic Mike, but that first movie unfolds with a clear, exacting precision that Jacobs more imitates than equals. Still, there are beautiful moments here. Tatum’s first meeting with Heard is shot in such heavy shadows, on a beach at night, that their faces are barely visible; it’s a beautifully sustained linger in expressive darkness for a mainstream movie. Later, in a scene as simple as the two of them chatting in a kitchen, Jacobs and Soderbergh cut crisply between one-shots, never smothering the scene in coverage.
The more comedic tone, too, has its highlights, like the unidentified girl in a bikini and a motorcycle helmet who rampages through the background of an early party scene, and some funny, regionally specific bro-camaraderie dialogue (“get your Orlando history straight,” one of the guys huffs when his buddy confuses N’Sync with the Backstreet Boys). But the movie feels talkier than the first one, even though it’s probably not; the dialogue scenes poke along in a way that Soderbergh’s don’t, sometimes outlasting the compositions with repetitions of Tatum’s vocal tics (“Really? Ok”; “what are you even doing right now”; that sort of lite-sarcasm thing). Even so, he’s a winning performer, his aw-shucks demeanor paired with that swaggering physicality; the rest of the guys have their moments, but maybe there’s a reason they were more colorful support last time around, just as maybe it’s unlikely that they only cast McConaughey in the first one because they couldn’t get Jada Pinkett-Smith.
So despite its unusual creative shifts, vastly increased crowd-pleasing, odd position outside Soderbergh’s filmography, and abiding, welcome respect for The Ladies who are going to see it, Magic Mike XXL winds up very much a sequel. In the task of making an unnecessary sequel to a pretty great movie, Jacobs acquits himself, but XXL has less reason for being than Magic Mike, and though it’s a lot of fun, it’s not quite snappy enough to fully distract from that fact. What it’s selling is great for business and great for humanity; maybe just pretty good for art.