Magic Mike XXL is a summer lawn party of a movie. While the over-the-top title and basic concept may limit its theatrical appeal to women in inebriated groups, this is largely a film about dudes hanging out and shooting the breeze. There's a fun, inclusive quality to its shaggy-dog narrative, for those willing to suspend their disbelief and check their inhibitions at the door.
It's instructive to compare Magic Mike XXL with Pitch Perfect 2. Both are sequels to surprise hits with primarily female appeal. Both celebrate and elevate a form of performance that has historically been mocked by the "cool kids" (male stripping and a cappella, respectively) while reveling in its campier aspects.
Magic Mike and Pitch Perfect also shared a standard "initiation" plot structure in which an outsider explores the strange world of these exhibitionist outcasts. But, while Pitch Perfect 2 doubled down on its predecessor's well-worn tropes — even adding a new outsider character — Magic Mike XXL blithely throws all that out the window.
Gone is Alex Pettyfer's novice character, along with Matthew McConaughey. The film opens with the titular Mike (Channing Tatum), who now owns a successful construction business, agreeing to join his old Tampa buddies on a road trip to a stripper convention.
While Mike has a few issues to work out, he's less a protagonist than a convenient focus for this loosely structured ensemble drama. Characters who were little more than well-oiled abs and punch lines in Magic Mike — "Big Dick" Richie (Joe Manganiello), grizzled Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and pretty boy Ken (Matt Bomer) — now get their own hopes, dreams and monologues.
In ditching the more rigid conventions of the first movie, XXL imitates its heroes, who toss their well-loved G-strings and props while hopped up on Molly and trekking north in a fro-yo van. They want to keep their act fresh — and so, apparently, do the filmmakers. (Reid Carolin returned as writer, Gregory Jacobs directed, and Steven Soderbergh, who directed the first film, shot and edited this one under pseudonyms.)
There's still plenty of bumping and grinding, but not exclusively by our heroes. Instead, the movie explores a broader hedonistic nightlife culture in which all the women are plastered, horny and carrying stacks of small bills, and all the men are eager to cater to their desires — especially since they might get to hook up after the show. In one lengthy, dreamlike sequence, Jada Pinkett Smith presides over a private Savannah club where woman are called "queens," and Donald Glover (of "Community") pops up to expound on the healing power of stripping.
In short, viewers who firmly believe that "male entertainment" is exploitative — to performers, customers or both — would be well-advised to avoid the movie. Carolin's script barely acknowledges the seamier side of titillation for pay.
But then, that's because Magic Mike XXL essentially takes place in an alternate universe — one where nights seem to stretch forever, illuminated by mellow blues and purples and pulsing to sensual pop beats. Scenes that might have floundered — like Mike's flirtation on the beach with a stranger (Amber Heard) — get a boost from sheer staging and atmosphere.
Just as Pitch Perfect 2 gave us conceits such as a secret club hosting a cappella riff-offs, so this movie offers a set piece in which Mike and his friends happen to stumble into a gathering of very rich, very tipsy southern belles of a certain age. Scenes like this are fantasy fulfillment for both characters and audience. They work largely — perhaps only — because of the expressive camera work and lighting and the easy, naturalistic performances.
In the grand tradition of warm-weather-themed entertainment — which stretches back to A Midsummer Night's Dream — Magic Mike XXL almost makes us believe in a world that's all parties and no hangovers. Just don't expect it to play so well in the harsh light of February.