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Entries in Magic Mike XXL [2015] (1)


Magic Mike XXL (2015)

Nice Duds

A man finds himself at a crossroads. Stuck in a career path that utilizes his talents but only half-realizes his dreams, he spontaneously joins some friends on a road trip in a food truck. This journey of self-discovery begins in Florida, and is marked by great music, colorful locales, and a Food Network marathon's worth of unique, delicious confections served to swarms of eager customers. Sadly, we're not talking about Chef today. Magic Mike XXL is on the menu, and Gregory Jacobs' sequel is the doughy-center, thin-crust sausage special to Steven Soderbergh's original deep dish delight.

Full disclosure: going in to Magic Mike XXL, I had no expectations; hadn't seen the trailers; and could barely remember the first film, beyond Matthew McConaughey's oily climactic solo routine. All I knew was that Soderbergh wasn't attached and, for me, that spelled trouble. My complaints about branding swing both ways, especially as pertains to film franchises. Movie studios are very smart, you see, churning out products that are just "new" enough from what consumers know and love to warrant another dip in the pocket. What is Jurassic World, but Cool Ranch Doritos? What is Avengers: Age of Ultron, besides Pepsi Throwback? The same formula applies to sleeper-hit art pictures, too. Magic Mike XXL omits a key ingredient, though: the visionary director who made a flimsy premise both compelling and ridiculously entertaining. Without Soderbergh, the work is just as narratively lost and money-grubbing as any third-tier comic book sequel on the market.

McConaughey is also a no-show, as is his strip-club-owner character, Dallas. He's moved operations overseas, leaving his band of misfit male performers adrift. At the end of the first movie, Mike (Channing Tatum) left the scene with his girlfriend in order to start a custom-furniture business. Like The Karate Kid Part 2, Magic Mike XXL opens with our hero despondent over a surprise break-up, and looking to get out of his post-victory rut. Customers are few, bills are many, and when his old friends ride into town in a mobile fro-yo stand/nightclub on the way to a stripper convention, he jumps right on board.

The film's big problem is that writer Reid Carolin has no big-picture destination in mind for his characters. Yes, there's the stripper convention, but he makes it very clear that it's not a stripper contest. There's no grand prize that will allow the boys to set up their own club, no cigar-chomping mogul in the audience handing out Chippendales contracts. It's just a larger dance venue, packed with screaming, deluded women, throwing dollar bills at assorted, semi-sentient buns/cock combos.

That was harsh, but it's true. Where Soderbergh (and, puzzlingly, Carolin) brought 2012's Magic Mike to life by broadening audiences' understanding of what male strippers and their patrons could be (escapism through exciting and inventive dance artistry), the sequel settles for a conventional take on sex objects that we have to pay in order for them to pay attention to us. Because the performers are male, Carolin and Jacobs assume, the audience will give a pass to numerous scenes in which grabby, wide-eyed patrons drool all over semi-nude non-people--to the absolute delight of the chiseled hunks being groped. Watching the film, I couldn't help but feel creeped-out, knowing that the tone would be completely different had this been about a caravan of nubile, naked female strippers waltzing into subscription-based strip joints or into the living rooms of horny old men they'd never met before. Dim the lights just a little, and Magic Mike XXL becomes soft-core porno for misandrists and misogynists.

The film's only highlight is Donald Glover. He plays Andre, an aspiring rapper who does crowd work for Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the owner of that monthly-fee dance joint (which kind of feels like a brothel--and most definitely would be, in the alternate-universe version of this movie). The former Community star lights up the screen with personality and beats (in real life, he performs as Childish Gambino), and I hoped that the XXL creators would do something truly ballsy by ditching Tatum and company to follow Andre's exploits. Despite being turned off by Rome's operation in principle, there's a great story in that place.*

Alas, we're back on the road in no time, listening to Joe Manganiello whine about crappy business ventures and suffering Matt Bomer's Mysticism for Meatheads aphorisms. There's a reason Soderbergh and Carolin sidelined these cartoon characters the first time out: they have less to do and say than the headliner. Unfortunately, Mike spends most of the film despondent and bitchy, making semi-amends with his truckmates and a semi-connection with a bisexual Georgia peach named Zoe (Amber Heard). He comes alive on the dance floor, of course, but his aimless gloom infects the rest of the picture--while also serving as an apt metaphor.

It's telling that Magic Mike XXL performed very well during its debut last Wednesday, only to fizzle out over the long weekend. Magic Mike showed us the goods and showed us the good in its characters; the sequel has more beefcake but less reason to be, shackled by a screenplay that feels improvised by un-trained improvisers and direction that only comes to life under the catwalk strobe lights. There's lots to ogle, but little to see, and no reason to return.

*Probably lots of them, actually--several featuring former New York Giant Michael Strahan.