Pinpointing the most important conversation in Magic Mike XXL is, admittedly, a little like pinpointing the most important zoological computer model in Jurassic World, but let's do it anyway.
The most important conversation in Magic Mike XXL, a joyfully raucous follow-up to 2012's moodier, indie-er Magic Mike, takes place between Ken (Matt Bomer), a member of Mike's group the Kings of Tampa, and Andre (Donald Glover), a singer who works at a sort of ... stripping brothel? ... operated by Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith). Rome employs male strippers to work in various rooms of a swanky mansion for the entertainment of the cheering crowds of women she refers to as her "queens." Among others, she employs Malik, played by Stephen "Twitch" Boss, who some of you will know from So You Think You Can Dance.
Andre isn't a dancer, though; he sings and raps in the same way the other guys dance: to please women for money. And he explains to Ken that the most remarkable thing about it is that all you really have to do to make them happy is actually listen to what they want. He doesn't say it with callous, exploitative glee, as if women are an easy target because you give them as little as humanly possible and they're grateful to have it. He says it with a little disbelief and more than a little disgust at the guys these women clearly deal with in their day-to-day lives — nobody even cares what they want. Stripping and singing to women for money isn't sad, but the context can only be that women being in a position where they'll pay good money just to feel like it matters whether they're into what's happening or not is kinda sad.
The barest (har) excuse for a plot holds this film together: the remaining Kings of Tampa hit the road to head to Myrtle Beach for a "stripper convention," which the stars have insisted is an event based on ones that really exist, though not necessarily in that location. (Did I find that out by Googling "Myrtle Beach stripper convention"? Yes. Yes, I did. I do it all for you. And now there is a record of why I Googled "Myrtle Beach stripper convention" in the event of an inquiry.) Along the way, they stop at the aforementioned stripper brothel as well as the home of a mom played rather delightfully by Andie MacDowell. That's pretty much the plot, right there: "Road trip to stripper convention."
Taken at face value, which is largely the correct way to take it, Magic Mike XXL is a big ol' hot-fella rodeo — a swaggering, undulating salute to, above all, the body of Channing Tatum. Tatum's competitive advantage vis-a-vis lots of other Shirtless Movie Dudes, of course, is that in addition to being a pretty effective stripper, he's a legitimately marvelous dancer who delivers his hotcha-cha-cha with a generous wink. The first time you see him dance in XXL, it's exuberant and funny, self-deprecating, self-conscious and self-gratifying all at the same time. This is dance, and performative sex appeal, as something joyful and pleasing to the performer, not just the viewer. Women stripping in movies, of course, are almost never presented as happy, joyful beings. (Not uncommonly, they're seen writhing silently in the background while powerful men have serious talks about seedy matters at sketchy establishments.) This is stripping without the slick layer of grime that movies and television often assume must be attached to it.
The other guys remaining in the Kings of Tampa (after the departures of Dallas and The Kid, the characters played by Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer in Magic Mike regular-size) are played by Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez, and Kevin Nash. They don't quite have Tatum's dance chops, or at least they don't show them in this movie. They make up for it, though, in commitment to the way the film envisions their diverse performance styles. Some women like bride-and-groom fantasies, the script suggests, and some women like crooners, but all women like people who are stripping from the ... heart?
Manganiello has a terrific scene that underscores the Magic Mike ethos regarding the sexiness of male strippers, which is that it's not used to turn women on, necessarily, as much as to pamper and delight them. It is male strippers as a sort of spa treatment.
There's a danger, obviously, in suggesting that women see male strippers for reasons other than being turned on — women are as capable as men of ogling for ogling's sake, and had it been done a little differently, the assertion that very often, women laugh at strippers (though I think it's sometimes true) could have seemed infantilizing or patronizing. But while the movie doesn't necessarily have any particularly interesting ideas about strippers and doesn't really need any, it does posit a thing that winds up being perhaps unintentionally provocative, which is that the ultimate luxury for these particular women is to enjoy looking at sexy men in an environment that is not as fraught as the one in which they usually find themselves. It's a suggestion that they are willing to pay for exactly what Andre says they don't get in their day-to-day: deference to what they really want. It's a suggestion that all they want is to look at sexy, consenting dudes in peace, and they can't.
At the same time, the movie takes advantage of the luxury these guys have of knowing when they walk on the job that nothing is going to happen that they don't want. It presumes that they live in a world where a sexual performance is transactional but also personal, like a good massage, with the professional in charge. There's a bit of a running joke about their functioning as "healers," but it's not entirely a joke. I think the movie believes this a little; one of its subplots suggests it does.
I have no idea whether male stripping can possibly be this much of a win-win in real life, but that's the movie's fantasy: nobody feels bad, everybody has fun, everybody goes home happy. The movie, meanwhile, is so infectiously, brazenly pleased about literally everything that happens in it that it's hard not to leave in the same frame of mind.
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