There we all were the other night, laughing and clapping and whooping it up at Magic Mike XXL, a movie whose plot can fit on a Post-it. Five of the exotic dancers from Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 hit, Magic Mike, make their way from Tampa to Myrtle Beach for some sort of stripper convention. It is, they promise, their last dance. But what’s great about this movie — and it is great in its ridiculous way — is how it sustains a balance of hilarity and eroticism. The nor’easters of cash are funny. The screaming and gaping and cracking up that the female clientele do in this movie are funny. So are the lengths the men will go to induce the screaming and gaping — and in one nutty sequence set at a gas-station minimart, just to win a smile. But as I sat there laughing, I realized I wasn’t only entertained. I was moved and exhilarated. Not since the days of peak Travolta and Dirty Dancing has a film so perfectly nailed something essential about movie lust: Male vulnerability is hot, particularly when the man is dancing with and therefore for a woman. It aligns the entire audience with the complex prerogatives of female desire.
I’ve never watched a movie more aware of the fact that it is not speaking explicitly to men, not even gay ones. Both the first film and the ads for the second make hay of penises. Some of the posters have stamped the word “coming” over the crotch of a backlit Channing Tatum. Sure, there are tearaway pants and pelvic thrusts galore, but this new movie isn’t thinking with a penis. It’s consciously doing something more sophisticated — well, sophisticated for something starring and made by men that’s opening on thousands of screens for July 4th weekend; a deft touch plus charm, aggression, scowling, grinning, danger, safety, and risk equals fireworks, too. Will Smith is a former king of July 4th weekend. The secret weapon of XXL (one of them) is Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who, as owner and emcee of her own pleasure parlor, addresses throngs of thrill-seeking women as “queens” in a way that snatches the word back from gay culture.
The terrain here is entirely below the Mason-Dixon line, and part of the whooping is for both how ludicrously and how sincerely this movie wants to get below your Mason-Dixon line, too. The way it does this feels totally new. XXL creates a world in which men want only to satisfy a specific idea of pleasure. What that idea is changes from environment to environment and from female to female. None of the big scenes takes place in a standard club environment. Instead, the road trip lands the gang at private events and people’s homes. They’re making house calls, and the intimacy of the settings compounds the fantasy, personalizes it. These men are dancing only. For. You.
Tatum’s Mike Lane urges the other guys to throw out their old stage personae — the male-dancer clichés: fireman, cop, stuff like that — and find more authentic ones. What if, in addition to baring their asses, they also bared their souls? The change is a brilliant shift in prerogative from the first movie, which was a druggy and jokey, slightly overwritten romantic comedy between Mike and a beachy but practical chick (Cody Horn); between artists and money (on either side of the camera); and among the dancers themselves. The original film also found this lusty, swampy world a little sad. In the end, Mike left it to start a custom furniture business. Three years later, he reenters, newly single, lured back by the vocation’s moan. He’s minding his business in his metalworking shop when, suddenly, the opening licks of Ginuwine’s “Pony” return from the first film. This time the movie hits hard the song’s robotized exhortation that staggers in the backbeat: “Yeah. Yeah. Oh yeah.” He’d already been tricked into partying with the old gang, who tell him they’re on their way to that convention. He says he can’t join them. But in Mike’s shop, the cosmos forces him to reconsider. That song comes on, and he proceeds, almost involuntarily, to glide and grind his way around, into, and against the tables, beams, and equipment. The moment is a little bit Flashdance, a little bit Footloose, and 100 percent for us. Tatum’s dancing by himself isn’t as technically sound as Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. It’s dirtier and more insinuating. They danced to express themselves. Tatum dances because he knows we’re there.
Soon Mike is back with Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Richie (Joe Manganiello), and Ken (Matt Bomer). There’s not much to these people as individual characters — they’re openly shallow. But you like their harmony as a group. It’s explained at some point that Matthew McConaughey’s emcee character from the original has run off to Asia to start a new show with the Kid, who was played by Alex Pettyfer. The guys have found a new emcee, played by the comedian Gabriel Iglesias — another veteran of the first movie (he played the DJ) and known to the world by his nom de stand-up, Fluffy. Besides Tatum, the only person who seems even close to stardom is Bomer, who has always been prettier than he is interesting. There’s never enough happening on or behind that doll’s face of his. But the character’s spiritualistic mumbo jumbo — he says he’s doing Reiki — makes sense now as honest comedy, as opposed to mockery. When the movie settles in for a long sequence in Charleston, Bomer gets to advertise his talent in a way that makes you wonder what took so long.
The big deal about the first movie had to do with the droves of women who jammed into theaters to see something seemingly meant to please them. It was a comedy about men who take their clothes off for money. Soderbergh’s artistry bettered a script by Reid Carolin, based, in part, on Tatum’s days dancing for money. Carolin also wrote this new movie, and its narrative minimalism is more impressive. It’s a road movie, structured around three astonishing set pieces that seem designed to take in the wider world while paying homage to dudes like Homer. Each passage has to be beheld to be believed, but none is like anything I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie.
The first is at a place called Domina, the country club of Pinkett Smith’s character, Rome. She’s a former stripper, an ex of Mike’s, and the operator of an establishment whose clientele consists entirely of black women gathered to have their breath stolen by black men. Mike has come in search of a new emcee (Fluffy doesn’t quite make it to North Carolina). Rome, who calls him a ghost (maybe because he’s white, maybe because he left), wants to show him what she’s built since he split. She also, presumably, wants to show him how real men please women. And so Mike and Ken and everybody else become bystanders as the camera takes in her cabinet of wonders, one of whom turns out to be Michael Strahan.
I won’t lay out the particulars. I’ll only say that Pinkett Smith puts her steeliness to its sexiest use ever (ending a decades-long squandering) and that there was no reason to include this sequence. There’s a way it could be viewed as a self-inoculation against the whiteness of Mike’s crew and these movies, in general. But it doesn’t feel at all defensive. It speaks, instead, to the risk this movie is taking in suggesting this world is more vast, hotter, and far more lucrative than we could have imagined.
I was too knocked out to clock this scene’s duration, but it’s not short. There are about three full numbers. The lighting, in blues and reds, doesn’t obscure the variety of black and brown skin. It brings something else out in them. It invests them with meaning. The choreography is a mix of confidence, melodrama, and the kind of erotic origami found in some street dancing. And the energy keeps shifting from wild to weird to whatever Donald Glover does after the camera pans up to find him standing at the top of a staircase wearing a porkpie hat and blazer over a bare chest. All he does is sing to a recent divorcée, but you can feel the women around her — and the people around you — melting, too. It’s true that Rome and some of her men — including Stephen “tWitch” Boss, who, for the finale, becomes the group’s sixth performer — are helping these mostly white guys find their souls. But the movie comes honestly by both the search and the assistance. That sequence at Domina is ecstatic.
So if this is tourism, it feels accidental. For the men in Mike’s crew, Domina is another revelation on a trip full of them. Their blocky shtick won’t do. As fun as it was in the original movie, it felt bogus: gay-revue iconography (real Village People type of stuff) repurposed for female entertainment. It was a novelty. XXL grants the trade profundity and a kind of wisdom that begins at Domina’s and continues with Glover’s character later imparting to Ken a deep thought about what he, and by extension all men who dance, get out of the job: women’s pleasure. These aren’t gay men. But in the first movie, it was as though the men of McConaughey’s Xquisite club thought that a kind of gayness was a safe route to a straight woman’s rhapsody: to be a little draggy. The new film reframes their heterosexuality. This time, the joke with Richie is that he can’t find a woman who can handle his generous anatomical endowment. Eventually, he does, and it’s beautiful, and you get the sense that the movie is about the search for a similar suitable home.
The director Gregory Jacobs, who for years has been doing assistant-directing work for Soderbergh, makes sure that the scores of women in every room can’t believe their eyes and can’t quite catch their breath. The cinematography and camera operation are by Soderbergh (working pseudonymously as Peter Andrews), whose long, wide takes get light, rhythmic editing (also by him) so that the dancing in this movie feels pure. The filmmakers understand that the fantasy of adult entertainment, at least here, is about a connection between people. If it breaks that, the movie breaks, too. So the takes, particularly in the last passage at the convention, are spaciously filled with seemingly hundreds of women gathered around different stages while Pinkett Smith, who winds up there, too, holds court among them. They’ve got the raw dreaminess of Bob Fosse and Robert Altman. You feel the pull — and the weight — of the female fantasy, especially once the crew winds up at the Charleston mansion of some girl Tito is sort of seeing. Speaking of ghosts: That sequence is dominated by Andie MacDowell, whose natural lasciviousness while hosting a ladies’ night in one of her living rooms makes something like cable’s American Horror Story seem childishly scared of real female sexual power. What’s amazing about this passage is that there’s no dancing, just minds meeting so that libidos can as well.
There’s the women’s movie, and then there’s this. Classically speaking, the women’s movie dramatizes lives and makes the feminine funny or universal or sufficiently spiritual. In all its ways — or at its most effective — it wants to lift people up and denounce affronts (chauvinism, sexism, double standards) with pluck, tragedy, and art. Magic Mike XXL is a reverse-women’s movie. It’s imbuing maleness with feminine energy. Most of the women here used to dance, and a few now run businesses based on men dancing for women. Elizabeth Banks plays one of those characters. She runs the convention the guys are heading to; the momentary locking of eyes she shares with Pinkett Smith warrants crying “fire” in a crowded theater. But, again, you laugh, too, because you never know where this movie’s sense of sexual adventure is going next. Take the love interest for Mike. She’s a moody stripper turned photographer (Amber Heard) whose bisexuality is in a firm female phase, which the movie both subtly and overtly respects. You dread that she’ll break, but she barely bends, and Tatum’s charm doesn’t force the issue. She’s found a buddy, and that works for him. The movie seems to have really considered the appeal of male live entertainers. With women, it’s the taking of power. With men, it’s the surrender to some kind of true, exposed self.
This is turning out to be some summer for women, from Banks’s execrable but unimpeachably popular Pitch Perfect 2 and the sublime sneak-attack feminism of Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy, Inside Out, and now this. The feat of XXL is that its throngs of attention-starved, hormonally revved women always double as comments on the dusty marketplace conditions. So does all the money that just rains from the sky like confetti. This movie doesn’t put you in the mind of a woman. It puts you in her libido. At least for me, what it means to be aroused has undergone a glorious realignment. I wasn’t hard when it was over. I was wet.