June 30 2015 07:14 PM

Channing Tatum and his buff brothers return in a surprisingly smart and seamless sequel


Every week a few emails flood my inbox updating local press about the time and place for advanced screenings. Most of these events figure to be run-of-the-mill promotional junkets; very few attain event-level status. When the screening for Magic Mike XXL was announced, I naturally thought of inviting my CityBeat colleague, Ryan Bradford. This was going to be a special one. Why? "Well, That Was Awkward".

In 2012, Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike struck box office gold by attracting a mostly female audience with its pulsating pelvic thrusts and gyrating rumps. The sweaty press screening for it was bananas. A small section of mostly male film writers were surrounded by hundreds of impassioned women screaming at the screen as if they were actually at a strip club. Some didn't care for their seats at all, opting to dance in the aisles every time Channing Tatum strutted his stuff. It was as if the dude's abs could cure cancer.

In anticipation of an insane encore for Magic Mike XXL, I invited Bradford to the press screening hoping the experience would provide inspiration for his latest column of discomfort. Always a sucker for a nervous new experience, he agreed with gleeful excitement.

Cards on the table, I loathed the first Magic Mike not because of its theatrics or cash-grab sexuality, but for its strained self-seriousness, lazy characterizations and flimsy politics. I went in to the sequel expecting more of the same, and was willing to sacrifice my sanity for Bradford's art (and enjoyment). Never judge a stripper by his banana hammock. 

Magic Mike XXL hardly resembles its predecessor in tone. Replacing the somber "great recession" subtext is a classical and expressive spin on the road film. The wafer-thin plot follows Mike and his buff brothers on a trip to Myrtle Beach for one last performance at an industry convention. Within this context, stripping is no longer a way to make ends meet, but a joyous form of artistic expression that can be specifically in tune with what a woman wants. 

Directed by Gregory Jacobs (a protégé of Soderbergh's), Magic Mike XXL has the spirit of a film freed by the open air. Elaborate dance sequences take place in different locations, essentially turning every corner of the world into a potential stage. Richie's (Joe Manganiello) orgasmic sway of seduction in a gas station food mart establishes the trend that continues on in the confines of a Savannah Gentlewoman's club and the living room of a Southern belle (Andie MacDowell). 

Setting matters very little. It's all about perfecting the art of listening and interpreting through physicality. The varied public performances in Magic Mike XXL are all about commitment, understanding the way a person's wants and needs change in the heat of a given moment. Even more importantly, Jacobs has made the rare Hollywood movie that embraces women as collaborators in their own visceral experience instead of painting them merely as submissive objects or empty vessels along for the ride. 

Whereas the first Magic Mike was drolly infatuated with male doubt and ego (a very typical theme this day and age), its intoxicating and joyous sequel is about the symbiotic relationship between self-esteem and happiness.  

That Magic Mike XXL, which opens Wednesday, July 1, inspired impassioned discussion within my group after the film should be a testament to the night's success. "That was a weird movie," Bradford said almost surprised at his own feelings. I think his uncertainty stemmed from the fact that mainstream cinema rarely exudes such confidence in the ways female sexuality and artistic expression overlap. The experience can feel foreign, challenging, and strange for us Neanderthals. 

As for the press screening itself, the mostly female crowd went wild, again. But this time, instead of feeling alienated by the public display of pleasure, I felt closer to understanding what all the hooting and hollering really meant. It wasn't just about that bass. Not by a long shot. 

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com.


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