One needn’t have spent much time on dating sites to know that guys have a tendency to exaggerate where size is concerned, so fans of Warner Bros.’ 2012 striptease sleeper should set their expectations accordingly over “Magic Mike XXL.” Meanwhile, someone in the studio’s marketing department deserves a raise for so enticingly fluffing the title of a sequel that sheds the newbie (Alex Pettyfer), the emcee (Matthew McConaughey) and nearly all traces of plot, yielding an encore whose putative selling point is getting to know the fellas who shook their stuff in the next-to-buff. Trading the “A Star Is Born” angle for a rambling road-trip format, “Magic Mike XXL” offers creative dance numbers for demos underserved by the original — middle-aged divorcees, women of color and, in one odd scene, gay fans open to seeing these hunks in drag — but seems unlikely to measure up to its predecessor’s $113 million score.
Announced almost immediately after “Magic Mike” opened, and yet three years in the making, the project wasn’t exactly a rush job, but it still bears the cost-conscious, on-the-fly feel of the Steven Soderbergh-directed original. This time, it’s his longtime lieutenant, Gregory Jacobs (Sodebergh’s a.d. since 1993’s “King of the Hill”), who steps up to direct, while Soderbergh takes a supporting role, serving as director of photography (under his pseudonym, Peter Andrews) and editor (Mary Ann Bernard) — which begs the question why the film’s rhythm and framing feel so off, featuring countless widescreen shots that give no clue where to look and long stretches where the barely there plot seems to lose its way.
Typically, it’s the leading man who’s hardest to lure back when a flash of success triggers a cash-grab sequel, as stripper-turned-serious-actor Channing Tatum demonstrated once before by all but disappearing from the “Step Up” series. Of course, there’s no way a “Magic Mike” sequel wouldn’t feature Magic Mike, and Tatum not only reprises his role here but also serves as producer (as he did on the first film), once again entrusting scripting duties to creative partner Reid Carolin.
When the film opens, Mike has “retired” from dancing and is trying to make a go of running his own construction company. But all it takes is hearing his signature jam, “Pony,” on Spotify to trigger his exhibitionistic instincts, and he braves splinters and sparks as he turns his garage workshop into an impromptu stage. Like a safe-cracker who can’t resist the temptation of one more heist, Mike hardly even needs to be coaxed back into action. After a rowdy reunion with his old crew, passing through Tampa en route to a strippers convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Mike volunteers his services for their big show.
No misgivings, no jealous girlfriend (like Pettyfer and McConaughey, Cody Horn has also disappeared), no pressing financial crunch compelling him to win a big cash prize. In “Magic Mike XXL,” the guys dance because they love it, eschewing dramatic conflict for a less forced (but also less compelling) display of male bonding. If they have anything to prove, it’s that exotic dancers — or “male entertainers,” as they call themselves — have chosen a legitimate career, bringing happiness to the under-attended ladies of the world.
In the words of “Community” cut-up Donald Glover — a scrawny yet satisfying addition to the cast, offsetting the rest of the (predominately white and ridiculously over-muscled) ensemble as an impromptu-poetry-writing dancer — the ladies he serves are ignored by their husbands and boyfriends, “who don’t even ask them what they want.” Uh-huh. That might be true of some, but being listened to has nothing to do with why women buy tickets to “Magic Mike,” and it certainly isn’t a factor in whatever impulse compels men to visit strip clubs, but no matter.
Written raggedly enough for the actors to bring their own chemistry to what aspirationally feels like one of Robert Altman’s backstage dramas (a la “Nashville” or “Ready to Wear”), “Magic Mike XXL” is most fun when it isn’t trying to justify itself, but just kicking back with the guys — or better yet, giving them a fresh excuse to show off their creativity. Clearly, Tatum and company believe the public underestimates just how talented these male entertainers can be, especially when given the chance to develop their own choreography (which, of course, is actually Alison Faulk’s contribution). No sooner has Mike clambered aboard the group’s frozen-yogurt truck (belonging to splash-of-color Tito, played by Adam Rodriguez) than he’s talking the guys into throwing out their time-tested routines in favor of all-new dance numbers that more accurately reflect their personal passions.
Richie (Joe Manganiello, who returns as the group’s true “XXL” member, now in an expanded role) never wanted to be a fireman, though he’s been kindling desire as one for years. Now’s his chance to bring a smile to ladies’ faces in his own way. Tarzan (Kevin Nash) secretly aspired to be a painter, which gives the massive hulk a chance to play the sensitive artist. Pretty-boy Ken (Matt Bomer) fell back on stripping after his singing career stalled, but can finally put his pipes to good use. And there’s no reason Tito’s frozen-yogurt dreams can’t also fuel audiences’ fantasies as well.
At first, without McConaughey’s Dallas there to emcee, the guys consider promoting their gay DJ Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), but after he’s involved in a drug-induced driving mishap, they think better of it, recruiting shrewd businesswoman Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith, in what feels very much like an extension of her “Gotham” character), a surprising figure from Mike’s past. There’s something still smoldering between Mike and Rome, which justifies the film’s long digression in her Savannah club, Domina, where lonely black ladies profit from the film’s sexiest dance scenes. Rome’s dancers set the stage, then Tatum raises the stakes, by tossing out the synchronized Chippendales-style choreography in favor of some scorching one-on-one action, effectively simulating sex with the clothes still on.
That’s perhaps the most illuminating revelation “Magic Mike XXL” has to offer: namely, that strippers needn’t actually strip to be great at their jobs. By the end of the overlong film, audiences will get to see Tatum in a thong (his finale is inexplicably the pic’s most disappointing dance number), but the sexual tension is strongest when he’s fully dressed — as in a scene with new love interest Zoe (Amber Heard) in which the two parties flirt over a piece of red-velvet cake in the kitchen, while Mike’s friends keep a group of golden girls (led by Southern-drawling Andie MacDowell) entertained in the adjoining room.
These guys may be the Kings of Tampa, but Rome reminds that the customers are the queens (certainly a more effective gender-flipping pun than the guys’ half-hearted stab at winning an amateur drag contest in Jacksonville). The sequel could have gone any number of directions, but all involved share the goal of delighting their female fan base, taking special care to extend the magic to groups neglected by the previous film.