Somewhere, in a studio suite overlooking LaLa Land, a high paid suit is sitting in his (or her) comfy chair, trying to find that last great untapped demographic. They’ve watched as Tyler Perry has corralled the African-American contingent, while the Furious franchise and The Rock lassos up the Latinos. They’ve seen the soccer moms covered by Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey while their daughters swoon over Katniss and “Let It Go.” Family films have cornered, countermanded, and corrupted a now jaded audience, and horror can still make a college-aged fan fear for the dark.
So what does Hollywood have in store for the single ladies out there, the women who walk the fine line between Sex in the City and Girls? The answer, apparently, is Magic Mike. Or better yet, the latest micromanaged mini-genre to come out of the nonstop Nicolas Sparks machine, the male stripper drama. Sure, it’s aimed at the entire female demo, but this ludicrous attempt at turning abs into drama is not really interested in character or credibility. Instead, it’s about sweaty beefcake, dolled up dudes whose muscles mask a certain lax narrative flair.
The original film, helmed by Oscar winning indie icon Steven Soderbergh, took a microscopic budget and blew it up into an international blockbuster. Now, with newcomer Gregory Jacobs in the director’s chair and original screenwriter Reid Carolin back behind the MacBook, star Channing Tatum and (most of) his buddies are back, this time taking a road trip to Myrtle Beach on that most hackneyed of all sequel premises, the “one last shot” at (redemption, fame, closure — you fill in the term).
Actually, Mike (Tatum) is struggling with his handmade furniture biz and could use a quick payday. When he gets a call from his bros — Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) — about attending the Male Stripper Convention, he decides to join in. Before you can shout “road trip,” the gang ends up in a drag bar run by Jada Pinkett-Smith, a private party with Andie MacDowell in attendance, and a potential love interest for Mike in a photographer named Zoe (Amber Heard).
The main problem with a movie like Magic Mike XXL is that it is not a movie about male stripping. It doesn’t have any real insights into the profession and only skims the surface of what the occupation entails. Instead, this is a movie about men who just so happen to be male strippers, meaning their characters are not influenced by their job or vice versa. So these people have to be plenty compelling in order to carry the narrative and, unfortunately, Mike and his pals aren’t. Sure, they look good in the buff, but their problems are transparent and the solutions as pat as Channing Tatum’s buns are tight.
Another problem is the episodic nature of the story. Granted, most musicals only have the thinnest of shoestrings for plot, the better to attach the production numbers to. Magic Mike XXL is even guiltier of such threadbare strategies. Indeed, most of the viewers in the proposed demographic will be impatiently shifting in their seats waiting for Tatum and his pals to get nude. When they do – or at least, partially – the film starts to fly. The dancing is incredible and goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of public erotica like this.
And yet Magic Mike XXL comes across as defiantly asexual. While geared toward the gals, it dials down the female lust aspect to play up the well-toned talents of the leads. This is a man’s movie disguised as a ladies night out, as self-absorbed as the dancer’s on display. It pretends to pander then shifts into something akin to Flashdance with facial hair. The original had a sun-stroked sense of the character’s wandering desperation. This installment is all baby oil and pit stops.