As a female moviegoer, I'm used to assuming that most studio films aren't for me.
There are often clues in the previews to help me steer clear, like the slow-motion shot of a Victoria's Secret model running from danger (I'm not supposed to root for the skyscraper to fall on her, I have learned). So when someone actually tries to make a studio movie for me, as the people behind "Magic Mike XXL" most assuredly have, I'm inclined to be grateful just on principle.
Which is why I feel bad reporting that "Magic Mike XXL" didn't make me feel all that good. Watching it was like opening the wrong gift —- that's not my size, and I don't like blue, but thank you, Warner Bros., for even bothering to shop for me. Most of the other studios forgot my birthday.
"Magic Mike XXL" is set in the orange-spray-tan-colored world of male strippers. It stars Channing Tatum, who in his youth spent time on those runways, as the title character. Like its cheerfully raunchy predecessor, which was directed by Steven Soderbergh, this sequel isn't so much about story but about conveying the viewer from one strobe-lighted set piece to the next.
But while a seedy realism embodied by Matthew McConaughy's club owner Dallas leavened the fantasy in the original, Dallas is gone now and the knowing tone has been replaced by a more earnest one, which doesn't play nearly as well.
A road picture with only the skimpiest thong of a plot, "Magic Mike XXL" picks up three years after the first film, as we find Mike (Tatum) focused on his thriving custom furniture business, a job, by the way, that fulfills the deeply Freudian female fantasy of a man who can put together an Ikea Billy bookshelf without swearing.
In a scene winkingly evocative of similar moments in dancer-with-a-dream movies such as "Flashdance," Mike hears the call of the grind one night in his workshop when Ginuwine's throbbing '90s R&B anthem "Pony" comes on the radio. Using power tools, work benches and Tatum's best instrument — his sense of humor about his own sculpted image — the moment strikes just the right campy vibe.
Unfortunately, the conveyor-belt story then kicks in, as the guys hit the road for one last lap dance at a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Writer Reid Carolin and director Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh's longtime first assistant director, fill the movie's non-thrusting minutes with stultifying dialogue and head-scratching scenes of male bonding, featuring the motley, low-body-fat crew from the original: Joe Manganiello's Big Dick Richie, Matt Bomer's dollish Ken, Kevin Rash's Tarzan and Adam Rodriguez's Tito.
In the era of the dad bod — an ascendant, doughy female ideal of a guy who doesn't count his carbs or hers — there is something about the protein-powder-built bodies in "Magic Mike XXL" that feels out of step, like a male fantasy of what a female fantasy should be.
I suppose there's something equalizing about objectifying male bodies as much as we objectify female ones, and something sweet about filmmakers thinking this hard about what turns women on. Another one of the endearing qualities of "Magic Mike XXL" is how the movie acknowledges the franchise's gay male fan base, as evidenced in a drag queen revue scene in the film and in its marketing campaign, which saw Tatum and Bomer riding a float in L.A.'s gay pride parade two weeks ago.
It almost makes you want to throw dollars at them, you know, for the effort.
But it's hard when the movie's female characters make even these cartoon men look like portraits of complexity. There's Amber Heard's sulky photographer, Zoe, whose red-streaked hair and propensity for walking out of rooms is supposed to signal that she's deep; Andie MacDowell's white wine-swilling Southern matriarch, who really just needs some good sex (how convenient that there's a man named Big Dick Richie in her house!); and Jada Pinkett Smith's carnival-barking MC, Rome, whose shtick is to call women in the audience "queen" and select one, "Paper Chase"-style, to let a man she's never met drop his crotch onto her head. 'Cause really, does anything take the edge off a tough week like a pair of sweaty testicles on your temples? Please, Rome, don't call on me.
Apart from Tatum, who also produced the film, "Magic Mike XXL's" most valuable player is its choreographer, Alison Faulk, who deploys her skill best in an athletic third act mirror dance that pairs the star with "So You Think You Can Dance" all-star Stephen "tWitch" Boss.
Soderbergh, an executive producer, also serves as the cinematographer and editor here, and we presumably have him to thank for the inventive way the movie's rippling abs and lats are lighted — by beach bonfire, car headlight and power tool spark — and for the well-timed cutting, which helps sell the humor.
But even the movie's funny moments seem oddly chosen. In one scene, when Richie, high on Molly, is trying to get his groove back, he walks into a gas station and amuses the bored register girl by peeling off his shirt and dramatically flinging Doritos at her.
For the record, if a 6-foot-5 man high on drugs walks into a place where you're working by yourself and starts taking off his clothes and throwing food, most women would call 911. Yes, even if he looks like Manganiello. A better scene might have involved him helping her fix the broken slushie machine, mopping up the mess with his shirt and settling in to binge-watch some "Downton Abbey." So what if it's a fantasy? You'll get to the grind eventually.