In a season when practically every new Hollywood release aspires to be like a five-scoop ice cream sundae, Magic Mike XXL goes down like a dish of lemon sorbet—light, tangy, and refreshing. For a couple hours the film invites viewers to enjoy the company of its characters, along with Alison Faulk’s athletic choreography (which is even more impressive here than in the first Magic Mike) and some pleasant southern locations. It makes little pretense at storytelling. Mike’s decision to return to stripping feels arbitrary; so does his colleagues’ avowal that their trip to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach will be their “last ride” as male entertainers. At the same time, these aspects of the plot aren’t belabored. The filmmakers introduce these motivations quickly, as if to get them out of the way, before moving on to scenes of Channing Tatum and his peers hanging out, which are the most relaxed and ingratiating of their kind I’ve seen in a recent movie.
Like its predecessor, Magic Mike XXL opens with the Warner Bros. logo from the 1970s, though the film feels closer in spirit to such Depression-era Warners’ musicals as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Those movies, designed as vehicles for Busby Berkeley’s musical numbers, were all about putting on a great variety show—in a sense, they were films about themselves. XXL is no less self-referential, filled with in-jokes about its own weightlessness and tongue-in-cheek allusions to the first film. The plot, as in any of the Berkeley-choreographed classics, concludes with an elaborate stage revue that marks the fruition of the characters’ hard work, and which the filmmakers present as an end in itself. We don’t see how their performance at the convention will impact their careers or their personal lives—barring a few dialogue-free shots, the movie ends when the revue does.
However abrupt, the ending doesn’t feel like a cop-out, since the filmmakers grant a certain emotional gravity to the preparation for the big show. (They certainly give it greater weight than the halfhearted romantic subplot involving Mike and another stripper played by Amber Heard.) This is another way in which XXL evokes much Depression-era cinema (namely the scrappy dramas that William A. Wellman directed for Warners, like Night Nurse and Other Men’s Women)—it presents hard work as an inevitable part of life and shows how people can make the best of it. The film establishes its workaday rhythm in the opening scenes, which show Mike at his job as a furniture maker, constructing tables and making deliveries with his employee. This montage prefigures one that occurs later in the movie, when Mike and his dancing partners construct the sets and outfits for their revue. The revue, incidentally, makes reference to the men’s career aspirations outside of stripping. Tito (Adam Rodriguez), whose frozen-yogurt truck doubles as the men’s tour van, does a routine involving ice cream; Tarzan (Kevin Nash), who dreams of being a visual artist, plays a painter in his act.
The allusion to serious art isn’t arbitrary—as filmmaking, XXL can be downright elegant. Steven Soderbergh—shooting, as usual, under the name Peter Andrews—achieves some gorgeous camerawork throughout, executing nimble pans and zooms that mesh nicely with the onscreen choreography. And Gregory Jacobs’s direction is no less assured, establishing a controlled looseness that gives the actors room to make their dialogue feel spontaneous. Like the characters, the filmmakers are clearly working hard at putting on a good show—and their effort occasionally succeeds at elevating this unabashed entertainment to the level of art, much like Busby Berkeley did in his musical numbers.