It’s a Stripper Road Trip in ‘Magic Mike XXL’

Channing Tatum and his crew of (ahem) “male entertainers” are still looking for a place to belong in this big-hearted, fast-paced sequel.

It’s no criticism to say that Magic Mike XXL doesn’t have a lot at stake. Following Magic Mike‘s model, it’s got a low budget and simple concept, and likely clean up on its July 4 opening weekend. But this just-tongue-in-cheek-enough sequel, unlike the frantic and insecure Jurassic World, carries a devil-may-care casual confidence that wins you over precisely because it’s not trying to go bigger and bolder. Instead, it brings the further adventures of a merry band of male entertainers who love what they do, know they can’t keep doing it forever, and want to go out on a high note.

When we last left the great Magic Mike (Channing Tatum), he was starting up his furniture business and getting serious with his girlfriend. That was three years ago. Now, he’s unable to achieve much success or even give insurance to his one employee, and looking for some escape. But instead of exploring gnarly emotional anxieties like Steven Soderbergh’s film, the sequel, directed by his frequent collaborator Gregory Jacobs, cuts right through them and suggests a simple cure: road trip!

In a few expert screenwriting snips, Mike’s girl is disappeared, his business is put on hold, and the guys’ slithery boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, not appearing here) has ditched them for an overseas gig. Hoping for a change in fortune, Mike and his buddies climb into his artisanal fro-yo van (all of these guys have businesses on the side), and drive to a gathering in Myrtle Beach called, well, “Stripper Convention”.

That word “stripper” comes freighted with many subtexts the film generally ignores. Although we wouldn’t expect to see a sunny road movie about a gaggle of female strippers heading off on a lark, the men are able to have a good time in a gig like this and go back to their day jobs none the worse for wear, their performances elaborate exercises in wish-fulfillment. But the film bends over as far as Tatum in his more acrobatic numbers to show that they’re good, mostly undamaged working guys who just want to settle down with nice women.

Before that can happen, Mike and his crew have to come up with a big final show and get past a few engineered roadblocks. All are dealt with in perfunctory fashion. Reid Carolin’s screenplay spends little energy on the mechanics of getting from Point A to Point B or resolving major character conflicts. Picking up on Soderbergh’s low-key ensemble style, the new film focuses on Mike’s reintegration into the group’s barnstorming camaraderie. That translates into a number of briskly handled bonding moments (the guys rethink their tired old choreography while on Molly; the guys talk earnestly about putting on one last great show; the guys razz Mike for abandoning them), interspersed with scenes where it just so happens that to move the plot forward, shirts come off and ab muscles ripple. At one point, vogueing is involved.

The cast has a lot to do with keeping the movie from feeling like a retread. Tatum’s sly charm works in the same low register as the film itself, which also showcases the casual appeal of fellow dancers Joe Manganiello and Matt Bomer. As an old flame of Mike’s called in for a favor, Jada Pinkett Smith brings the showstopper crowd-control factor previously embodied by McConaughey, and Andie MacDowell offers a stinging performance as a divorcée entranced by a surprise appearance of the dancers on her doorstep.

The familiarity of the plot is made slightly less noticeable by the film’s joyful and easy exuberance. While it doesn’t ignore the realities of this lifestyle — we know that all those dollar bills raining down on the guys’ carefully shaved chests don’t add up to that much in the end — it doesn’t dwell on it. Neither does it worry too much about the job’s emotional costs. The spell the dancers cast on their screaming audiences (who don’t appear to be coached) is presented as a playful, good-natured fantasy for both those creating it and those watching it.

RATING 7 / 10