I hooted and hollered my way through the first Magic Mike. Get down on your knees, Channing Tatum, slide on over this way in those baggy sweat pants! This was back in my drinking days. I went with a couple of friends after many cocktails, and we were a little rowdy and a little sheepish, as if the night involved an actual trip to a strip club instead of simply a movie starring a leathery and well-lubricated Matthew McConaughey. And yet for all the giggles (and the little nap breaks you could take during scenes of Tatum walking on the beach with some other girl...okay, actress Cody Horn), there was a vague sense of despair that accompanied the film — again, not unlike visiting an actual strip club. Magic Mike seemed to look upon its female audience with a slight wince, as if the eagerly pleased women in the room weren’t to be taken very seriously. So, what a surprise it was to walk into an advance screening of Magic Mike XXL with a dozen of my most delightful bozo friends, and find ourselves treated like queens. The sequel rightly does away with any sense of menace. There are no villains, and no seedy underbelly from which to escape. Just how low are the stakes, exactly? The guys want to put on one last show at a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach. Will any of these fellas (particularly Kevin Nash’s grizzled Tarzan, who looks ready to retire on the back lawn of a Jimmy Buffett concert) throw out a knee during a Ginuwine song? While the squealing women at the clubs were presented as somewhat macabre hens in the first movie (directed by Steven Soderbergh), in the follow-up, director Gregory Jacobs treats them as three-dimensional adults rightly deserving of some release. The camera lingers almost lovingly on women of all sizes and colors, seeming to revel in their curves and expressions of rapture. There’s a long magnificent scene of Joe Manganiello’s “Big Dick” Richie using a bag of Cheetos and a bottle of water as props in a convenience-store striptease choreographed to his beloved Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” When the weary cashier finally grants him a smile at the end of his performance, her approval fills Big Dick and his buddies with genuine joy. He worked for that response, and her grin was his reward. “We are healers,” Matt Bomer’s character happily realizes at one point, invigorated with a sense higher purpose. If XXL has a hero, I’d say it’s the wickedly fine Jada Pinkett Smith as the beneficent hostess named Rome, who manages a private, Eyes Wide Shut-type club that seems to cater exclusively to African-American women. And what a joy to see Black women on the receiving end of sexual adoration on the big screen, not over-sexualized for show, but fully committed to owning and enjoying their own sexuality.
The way Rome bats around Mike (nicknamed “White Chocolate” — duh!) with her tiger claws suggests they’ve had satisfying relations in the past (prequel!). But with McConaughey’s Dallas gone, the gang needs a new MC. Pinkett Smith is a glorious natural at hyping up a crowd of women. She insists that they look at themselves as royalty and urges birth control prescriptions, lest the sight of Mike grinding on a woman’s face and flipping her body around like a lasso gets anyone pregnant. Dibs on Rome as my life coach. What’s so wonderful about the sequel is how big a right it grants women to getting their rocks off. In fact, the wrong being righted here, through the power of rhythm and grind and Rome’s shouts of affirmation, is the shabby treatment of women in general. There’s a point in the movie when the merry band of strippers stumbles into an old Southern mansion looking for some girls they’d met earlier on the beach. Instead, they find one of the young women's mother (played with a lovely leer by Andie MacDowell) and what appears to be her drunken book club. I braced myself for some plot complications, some nasty subtext about women of a certain age preying upon the virility of Mike and his gyrating brothers. But what we get instead is a rather lovely interlude, in which these fifty-something women express wistfulness for their younger selves and disappointment in the men in their lives who insist on sex with the lights off. Mike and his buff buddies dote happily and uncynically on the women's bruised egos. There’s no unnecessary drama, just some good Big Dick love. After the movie, my friends and I were all in a pleasing state of fugue, eager to get back home to our men or women or just to ourselves. I asked my friends about one of Rome’s lines at the convention. One laughed and said that after Joe Manganiello strapped a woman into a swing while Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” boomed over the speakers, she blacked out and had no memory of anything that followed. If that’s not a glowing review, I don’t know what is.