The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Magic Mike XXL

When Magic Mike was released, I joked about feeling bad for all the women who thought they were getting a two-hour party movie about male strippers but were actually going to get an artsy, occasionally dark Steven Soderbergh character study. (That was a dig on the misleading advertising, not the women eager to see it.) While the film was a hit and earned fans, a significant portion of the core audience did indeed come away disappointed. Shortly before the release of Magic Mike XXL, I speculated on Twitter that, to compensate for such disappointment, the sequel would probably be lighter and funnier, i.e. more in line with what the ads promised the first time around. That turns out to be true. XXL isn't quite as psychologically curious as the original, but it certainly delivers a good time for both genders. (You heard me right, fellas.)

Things pick up a few years after the events of the previous film. Mike (Channing Tatum) is now operating a struggling furniture-making business in Florida. He misses his days as a performer, though. A chance to give it one more go arrives when his old pals – including Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) and Ken (Matt Bomer) – call and invite him to go on a road trip with them. Their destination is a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach. It will serve as their “last ride” together before going their separate ways. Mike joins, encourages everyone to come up with new routines, and enlists the help of an emcee (Jada Pinkett Smith) to host their performance.

The story in Magic Mike XXL is admittedly a little threadbare. With the road-trip premise in place, the movie proceeds to show some of the things that happen to the guys along the way. Mike starts a flirtation with a young photographer (Amber Heard), Tarzan (Kevin Nash) explores his desire to be an artist, Big Dick searches for a woman who isn't intimidated by his, um, name. Later, they find their way to a Southern mansion, where a wealthy lady (Andie MacDowell) entertains them for her friends. These episodes, and a few others, collectively serve to show how each of the guys learns to accept that they need to transition. Stripping is temporary; life is forever. Figuring out what comes next – and how to adapt to it – is something they have to face.

And that, more than anything, is the theme of Magic Mike XXL. This is a story about men who know how to please women more than they know how to please themselves. For whatever it lacks in narrative thrust (pun intended), the movie does explore this idea in ways that are fun and meaningful, without being overly precious about it. Each of the characters is at a turning point. They've devoted so much of themselves to giving women “what they want” that they've neglected their own desires. Or, more accurately, they've put all their eggs in that one particular basket.

Of course, they figure things out by removing a lot of clothing. Calling Magic Mike XXL a stripper movie is unfair, though. The performance scenes are staged with such creativity – and carried out with such stunning choreography – that they become much less about titillation than about character development. The first Magic Mike was not unlike Saturday Night Fever with stripping in place of disco; the stage was where Mike felt most at home. In XXL, the men can't fully evolve until they stop to analyze what they get out of performing, then start to formulate ideas for how they can get that feeling elsewhere. We therefore get to know them a little better, while also witnessing musical numbers that are as humorous as they are provocative. (Manganiello does a Fifty Shades of Grey-ish S&M routine to a Nine Inch Nails tune, while Tatum and So You Think You Can Dance star Stephen “tWitch” Boss do an astonishing mirror act guaranteed to drop your jaw.) Even if you're not into beefcake, you can enjoy the energetic execution of these moments.

What Magic Mike XXL lacks is the kind of intense focus that Soderbergh brought to the original. He's still here as cinematographer and editor (using pseudonyms for both), but directorial duties have been handed over to his longtime A.D. Gregory Jacobs. Under Jacobs's hand, the film is a little more meandering, a little more scattershot. It takes a while to get going, and some of the plot threads, like the one between Mike and the photographer, don't amount to much. Also missing is the intense character scrutiny from the original, which explored what it was like mentally/emotionally to work in a field viewed by many as disreputable. In other words, the sequel just isn't as deep or probing.

Still, there are good performances, some moments of genuine wit, and a handful of terrific actors in supporting roles, including Community's Donald Glover as a rapper/singer/stripper, and Elizabeth Banks as a coordinator at the convention. Plus the dancing. When Mike and the boys take center stage at the end, it's a lengthy celebration of pleasure – not just of the sexual variety, but of the pleasure that comes from discovering personal liberation. Magic Mike XXL says that anyone who devotes his/her life to making other people happy deserves to find a little bit of happiness for themselves. Clothing is optional.

( out of four)

Magic Mike XXL is rated R for strong sexual content, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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