The main question left unresolved at the end of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, a breezy downbeat male stripper drama with the economy on its mind, was a simple one. Will these entertainers find happiness? We watched them enjoy dancing on stage, commodifying their bodies to barely scrape by. But it wasn’t always fun. They had personal problems, and bigger dreams. In the end Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) gave it all up to start his custom furniture business. Now, three years later, we have a sequel, Magic Mike XXL, to answer the question of the characters’ happiness by ditching the heavier dramatic stakes. A romantic subplot, business angst, and drug-related problems go almost entirely by the wayside. Instead, we get a let’s-put-on-a-show road movie, inessential but hugely enjoyable, unfolding as a series of casual comic hangouts and winning theatrical dance sequences. It’s one long party.
Movies can take us places we’ve never been. For most of us, that’ll be a road trip from Miami to Myrtle Beach for a Fourth of July male stripper convention, ending in a performance space filled with screaming and swooning women ready to see perfect physical specimens perform cheeky choreography. Is there such a convention? I don’t know, but it makes for a great low-stakes movie idea. We meet Mike in Tampa, working hard to keep his business afloat when a group of his old stripper buddies (Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and Kevin Nash) show up. The DJ (Gabriel Iglesias) at the wheel, they’re on their way to the convention, and convince Mike to take a vacation and join them. His girlfriend dumped him. Their manager dumped them, taking the hot young star with him. (What a convenient way to write out the absent Cody Horn, Matthew McConaughey, and Alex Pettyfer, huh?) Why not take a fun holiday weekend trip together?
A loose, shaggy structure moves the guys up the coast, taking pit stops for relaxed sidebars. They find themselves watching a drag show, and then attending a beach party with some likable young women (including Amber Heard). They visit a luxurious private club where a group of performers (Twitch, Donald Glover, Michael Strahan) are presided over by an intensely charismatic host (Jada Pinkett Smith). They stop at a house owned by a wine-guzzling rich lady (Andie McDowell) for some flirtatious conversation. And of course they dance a little at each stop, and elsewhere too, including a hilarious convenience store challenge set to a booming Backstreet Boys song. (Boy bands are an important part of Florida history, we’re told in one of many amusing off-the-cuff conversations.) The movie treats the characters’ lives seriously, but their weekend lightly. It knows they, and we, just want to have a fun time. The result is a charming movie full of good cheer, easy rapport, a comfortable vibe watching a reunion of old friends happy to hang out and dance together again.
Soderbergh hands the director’s chair to his longtime assistant director/producer Gregory Jacobs, but stays on as producer, editor, and director of photography. There’s the same lush naturalism to the dim lighting, the loving consideration of physical presence as conduit of appeal. Reid Carolin returns as screenwriter, finding warm energy in stumbling banter, a funny, supportive, open-minded atmosphere. Without the dramatic tensions or interest in seedier elements of the first film, this one has the characters just enjoying the journey. Along the way, Mike convinces the group to toss out their old routines and just dance from the heart. We hear each man talk about their plans for the future, wishes for secure relationships, steady income. They’re driving towards one last big show. They might never see each other again. Why not do some new choreography, express themselves, go out on a high note?
So it’s three hoary old plots in one: road movie, dance movie, and one last job movie. The structure is similar to an early talkie musical like 1934’s Joan Blondell/Dick Powell picture Dames, which has lots of light comedy before climaxing in a series of elaborate dance sequences. Or look at it as a ribald Step Up movie, not just because it has two of that series’ alumni, but because it’s sprinkled with dance breaks before finishing off at a big contest with an elaborate show-stopping group number giving every character a shining showcase. Their raunchy routines are expertly choreographed collections of uninhibited, abs-baring, hip-thrusting, gyrations and gesticulations, spiced up with prop comedy and a little amateur Astaire and Kelly. Even a bit of the Marx brother’s Duck Soup mirror works its way into the lengthy climax. It’s thick with the electric ogling energy of performance.
That’s why the movie’s such a carousing delight. It finds exuberance of performance with a comfortable ensemble allowed unhurried scenes. Chemistry is what carries it, as well as a refreshing diversity, and low-key non-judgmental kindness, emphasizing the respect and enjoyment all involved on stage and off get out of their sexualized dancing. Other sequels would be tempted to open up new conflicts between the guys, find a villain of some kind, make the stakes higher. Though we learn a lot more about each character’s hopes, dreams, fears, and proclivities, there’s no heavy drama. It’s just a bunch of friends having fun, going with the flow, meeting interesting new people, and pulling together for a final job. It provides just enough plot for forward momentum and settles back into appealing sequences of likable actors thrown into eccentric situations. Light on its feet, there’s a meandering party atmosphere pervading every moment.