"If I go down, I'm going down in a tsunami of dollar bills," says Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) as the road trip that forms the curvy backbone of Magic Mike XXL sets a course for Myrtle Beach. It's a sentiment that informs so many "popular demand" sequels — that is, any sequel not precalculated by a studio's multi-year franchise plan. If a surprising amount of people turn out for what was meant to be a mid-level comedy, the logic goes, then by all means, take that cash and shower them with more, more, more of what they loved the first time around. But in a move refreshingly counter to its title — if not always successfully — Magic Mike XXL stays right in the low-key groove established by its original installment, more like the stylistic equivalent of a peaceful lagoon of quarters.
For the sequel, Magic Mike director Steven Soderbergh has relinquished his role to Gregory Jacobs, a frequent producer and assistant director for Soderbergh on projects including Side Effects, Cinemax's The Knick, and yes, Magic Mike. Soderbergh is still on as a producer, but more importantly, he's still on as cinematographer, which means that unlike most directors-turned-producers, he was still on set every day, interacting with the cast and having a direct hand in creating the film's languid Southern vibe. The result is a film that looks and feels almost identical to Magic Mike, if not even more deliberate and unhurried. The most surprising thing about the first film was that a movie that centered around male strip routines could feel like a Robert Altman film. That looseness could have easily been shaken off by bigger and louder stripper antics, but it remains humbly intact.
There are other shufflings of personnel; most notably the loss of Matthew McConaughey as Xquisite impresario Dallas, and Cody Horn as Mike's eventual boo Brooke. All this is explained away as awkwardly as any popular demand sequel — when you haven't planned a multi-film arc, you gotta improvise! The movie quickly moves on to what's really important: Channing Tatum dance sequences and just hanging with our boys.
If Entourage is from mars, Magic Mike is from Venus
"Just hanging with our boys" was the calling card of another film this summer, but if the male bonding of Entourage is from the Mars of a fictional Hollywood, Magic Mike's male posse is from a profoundly masculine Venus. They are a delightful, if somewhat unbelievable crew: a cabal of physically perfect men who are hyperconscious about their appearances, comfortable and supportive of each other as sexual beings, and respectful of each other's romantic endeavors. They are also not gay, and just as in the first film, the volumes of gay jokes that are just sitting out there for the taking are never made. These are just a bunch of ripped guys who like to hang out and do molly together in various states of undress. Cool? Of course it's cool.
The Magic Mike franchise (she said hopefully, dreaming of a glorious, mellow future in which this is the next Fast series) is an ambiguously sexual unicorn, which makes it intellectually engaging even at its most meandering. The closest Magic Mike XXL comes to directly addressing its obvious appeal for the gay community is a scene early on, in which the guys make a pit stop at a Jacksonville drag bar. Our entire ensemble volunteers for a voguing contest, and you can feel the film pushing against the boundaries of its characters' privilege. They are, after all, a pack of mostly white heterosexual men, tourists in a non-heteronormative enclave, even if it is made clear that they are friendly with the clientele. When Mike meets Zoe (Amber Heard) after the show, an aspiring photographer who specializes in drag queens, she subtly accuses him and his posse of grabbing the mic in a scene that doesn't belong to them, a thoughtful coda wrapped in a meet-cute.
If XXL doubles down on any element from its predecessor, it's its characters', and thus the film's, devotion to the pleasure of people attracted to men. Many dance movies hinge on the rejection of how its characters "should" dance, favoring how its characters truly want to dance, and XXL expands on that with a twist: the Xquisite gang realize their personal potential by tossing out Dallas' hackneyed cops-and-firemen notion of what women find attractive, and developing routines that both please themselves and their audience in more specific, personal ways.
Much of this is inspired by a visit to Domina, a members-only club ruled by Jada Pinkett Smith's Rome. Domina is basically a high-class, 24/7 bachelor party, where a troupe of men are both on hand to mime-hump women and tell them how special they are via improvisational serenade. Rome addresses the her (largely black) clientele as "queens"; Domina is a place where paying customers can be in charge, it is implied, regardless of how powerless they feel outside its walls. Pinkett-Smith is the obvious McConaughey surrogate, and having a woman in this role brings a new dynamic to Magic Mike XXL; it becomes much more pointedly a film about the right of women to objectify men. Whether at Rome's pleasure palace or later at a rich white woman's (Andie MacDowell) estate, our boys travel up the Atlantic coast as public servants for the sexual empowerment of women.
The film culminates at a male stripper convention; the guys steal the show, Mike woos Zoe through the power of pelvic thrusts. And yet, it occurred to me about two-thirds through the film that none of this felt particularly preordained. In Soderbergh's lazy, underlit lens, it really did feel like failure was possible. That's the charm of the Magic Mike series, if it can be called a series by now: it goes out of its way not to cinematize the world of its characters, the real world equivalent of which I imagine must be frequently depressing. They're still rehearsing in the crappy, aquarium-themed bar of a down-market Myrtle-Beachside hotel, the convention hall in which they perform their triumphant finale is still very obviously a convention hall. The low stakes, along with the often too-relaxed editing sometimes sacrifices momentum, but it also makes for an incredibly comfortable viewing experience; I found myself willing to hang with the dudes for as long as the film continued unspooling. And if a popular demand sequel is essentially just an excuse to spend more time with characters we enjoyed the first time around, isn't that a success?
The last popular demand sequel of note was Pitch Perfect 2, a film whose strategy was to put everything appealing about its predecessor in a blender, add 10 times as many celebrity cameos and fat jokes, and let whatever exploded out pass as a film. It worked; it made a surprisingly big $70 million in its opening weekend. I have no guesses as to how XXL will do in its holiday opening weekend, but Pitch Perfect 2 is the most logical film to compare it to, not only for its Elizabeth Banks cameo, but also in its scale and its performance-centric storytelling. Somehow Magic Mike resisted the urge to go mercenary, and in the process also became a much more female-positive film than Pitch Perfect 2, despite the demographics of its cast. As a film, I wish it would look a little more awake; as a sequel, I applaud its chill.