There’s a scene in Magic Mike XXL (2015, dir. Gregory Jacobs) where pretty-boy Ken (Matt Bomer) sings Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” to a neglected housewife who has just disclosed that she and her husband have not had sex with the lights on in several years. He holds her close, encouraging her to demand more in the bedroom, essentially telling her that she deserves to have her fantasies come true. It’s such a completely raw, naked (though fully-clothed) moment that I wasn’t entirely sure if I should have applauded or cried. I may have done both. As it turns out, there are several similarly surprising and heartfelt moments in this sequel to the 2012 smash hit.
MMXXL takes place three years after the first film – The Kings of Tampa find themselves leaderless, as Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, absent here) has taken The Kid (Alex Pettyfer, also absent) overseas for presumably a better gig. Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), with a little help from Tarzan (Kevin Nash), decides to get the band back together for one final performance at a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach. At the start of the film, the only King left to join the road trip is Magic Mike Lane (Channing Tatum), who’s finally started his salvaged furniture business after breaking away from the heady world of male entertainer-ing. All seems well in his world, but the thought of a last hurrah is mighty tempting, and soon the gang is movin’ right along in Tito (Adam Rodriguez) and Tobias’ (Gabriel Iglesias) mobile yogurt and DJ truck.
What follows is part road-trip, part drama, part dance film – with a remarkable amount of heart to back it all up. We find out more about the Kings and what’s been happening since we last saw them: Tito and Tobias have a fledgling business with the combination snack-and-party wagon, Ken has been struggling as some kind of YouTube model/spokesperson after splitting with his wife, Tarzan just wants to be an oil-on-canvas painter, and Richie is just longing to find his “glass slipper” – a woman who won’t shy away from his…biggest asset. We also learn that Brooke (Cody Horn, thankfully absent) has left Mike after he proposed to her, and that his “successful” business is just him and one other guy to whom Mike can’t even offer health insurance. They’ve all hit a wall in their lives – or rather a bank of trees after a dose of molly causes Tobias to drive off the road, wrecking the truck and giving himself a harsh concussion.
With the group now stranded and little other option, Mike goes back to where he started his stripping career, a members-only black strip club run by Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith). Here is where the film truly comes to life, giving us a setting where a black woman emphasizes the importance of self-love to other black women, through the magic of male entertainers. Rome calls her patrons queens, telling them they deserve to be loved, and nothing rings false or cheap about what she tells them – there is no huckster here, just a savvy woman who has created a world where women (specifically, black women) can be worshiped and can go home feeling good about themselves. Where there seemed to be something slightly sleazy about the way Dallas would MC a show, putting more emphasis on the performers, Rome is clearly more invested in the audience’s pleasure.
This feeling permeates the whole of MMXXL, which sees Richie performing a hilarious convenience-store striptease just to get a smile out of a dour cashier, and the afore-mentioned scene where Ken gives a much-needed confidence boost to a woman who has lost her spark. Even at the film’s final blow-out, the Kings perform a series of dances that take the men’s various interests and turns them around into a way to please and delight the audience. Tarzan (whose real name, we finally learn, is Ernest) gets to paint a glittered portrait of the woman on stage with him, Tito teases his ladies with candy and sweets, Ken shows off his amazing vocal skills by singing D’Angelo’s “(Untitled) How Does It Feel,” Richie finally gets to marry AND fuck in a sexy display of commitment, and Mike goes back to his roots by performing a mirror dance with the superior Malik (Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss).
It’s kind of rare these days to find a film that focuses so much on mostly hetero female pleasure without feeling like a Hallmark movie of the week. Even more surprising, there are at least three queer characters here who aren’t treated like a punchline or a stereotype – Rome, who seems to have had some kind of relationship with convention MC Paris (Elizabeth Banks); bisexual Zoe (Amber Heard), who is ostensibly Mike’s love interest although he’s clearly more invested in just seeing her happy than emotionally tied to him; and Tori Snatch (Vicki Vox), a drag queen who breaks it to Richie that his idea for condom-mints has already been taken. This is a hugely refreshing change from Olivia Munn’s predatory bisexual character in the first film, which felt so desperately straight at times it was almost unbearable.
Also, the character of Rome was originally written as a man, which adds an interesting side to a conversation where Mike reveals that he and Rome had a thing going on a while back. This dialogue may have been tweaked for filming once Smith was cast in the role, but it’s intriguing to think it may not have been. For the way Mike and the rest of the Kings interact with each other, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that some of these guys aren’t entirely hetero. Hell, we already know from the previous film that Ken and his wife had an open relationship – it’s not hard to imagine Mike or any of the other Kings being involved with another man at some point in the past. They all just seem so chill about it.
Magic Mike XXL is one of the most delightful films I’ve seen this year – it’s been ages since I’ve laughed so hard and been so surprised by a movie. Sometimes we go to the movies to see something we’ve never seen before, sometimes we go and learn a greater truth about ourselves or society as a whole, and sometimes we go and just have a genuinely entertaining time. This is far and away one of those latter films – and frankly, there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever. Go forth, queens, and be entertained.
[images courtesy Warner Bros.]