In an early scene of “Magic Mike XXL,” our stripping “male entertainer” protagonists stop off at a raucous Jacksonville drag bar and enter an amateur voguing contest. It’s a notable sequence for two reasons: first, it’s as close as the movie ever gets to acknowledging that there’s a male audience for our heroes’ brand of bumping and grinding. (Not for nothing did stars Channing Tatum and Matt Bomer recently ride a float in the Los Angeles gay pride parade.)
It also draws a parallel between the performance of femininity that drag queens deliver and the performance of masculinity of male ecdysiasts. “Your muscles are as gay as my drag,” a female impersonator once allegedly told author John Rechy, and while these characters are presented as nothing if not rip-snorting heterosexuals, there are moments when the jacked and chiseled torsos of Magic Mike (Tatum) and his pals look as exaggerated and artificial as the sky-high wig and 44DD falsies of the bar’s mistress of ceremonies.
Mind you, “Magic Mike XXL” doesn’t have much to say about these connections, or about anything else, for that matter. If the first movie strip-teased audiences who thought they were getting a sexy celebration of man-flesh into watching a movie about desperate characters coping with the post-2008 economy, this sequel, for better or worse, delivers what its audience expects, and nothing more. To put this in terms of Steven Soderbergh — who’s not directing this time, but still serving as cinematographer (under his Peter Arnold pseudonym) and executive producer — “Magic Mike XXL” is less “The Girlfriend Experience” and more Girls’ Night Out.
I wish it were a more fun night out; revisiting this material to make a “let’s put on a show” musical is all well and good, but that musical would benefit from more energy and tighter editing. Too often this movie feels like an overlong finale episode of a long-running TV series, one that assumes that we’re really invested in these characters and their desire to hang up their thongs after putting on one last great showcase.
Three years have passed since the events of “Magic Mike,” and our titular hero has left the burlesque biz behind to finally start that custom furniture business. It’s still a small concern (he’s got one employee for whom he can’t yet afford to provide healthcare), so when the former Kings of Tampa — Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Bomer), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) — blow through town on their way to an annual male-stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, Mike can’t resist joining them for a farewell frolic.
Along the way, Mike meets up with a former flame (Jada Pinkett Smith as Rome, who runs a members-only strip club for ladies) and a potential new one (an unusually dour Amber Heard as Zoe, a grumpy photographer), while the group suffers the usual road-trip maladies (infighting, a collision with a road sign) on their way to the promised land.
This isn’t enough to fill up nearly two hours of waiting for the big finale, which includes Donald Glover laying down some sweet slow jams, and Tatum doing a mirror routine with Stephen “tWitch” Boss that the Marx Bros. certainly never had in mind with they invented that bit in “Duck Soup.” There are moments of pleasure to be found along the journey, from Bomer’s New Age-isms to Andie MacDowell getting to flip her “Sex, Lies and Videotape” character around in the role of a horny divorcee, but “Magic Mike XXL” offers too much build-up and not enough payoff.
The payoff itself, of course, relies upon how much you believe director Gregory Jacobs (a longtime Soderbergh collaborator) and returning screenwriter Reid Carolin when they tell you that the Myrtle Beach show will be bigger and better than any “male entertainer” act you’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s not the usual cops-and-firemen-and-gladiators stuff, but neither does it redefine thrusting and humping.
Nor does “Magic Mike XXL” redefine the male-stripper movie, although at least it pays homage to its roots by having Bomer sing “Heaven,” the theme from the silly 1983 film “A Night in Heaven.” Sexual politics have changed significantly since Christopher Atkins took it all off thirty-plus years ago, but the sight of lusty women making it rain on lithe naked dudes remains pretty much the same.