“Boring but enjoyable” is how a woman of my close acquaintance summed up “Magic Mike XXL” as we left the theater, and you should listen up, because that’s the target demographic talking. The sequel to the hit 2012 male-stripper movie is missing a lot of things this go-round: the original director, half the original cast, a plot, a script, almost all the wit. What it has is a surprising amount of fellow feeling to go with its surplus of female feeling — I’m talking about emotions, mostly, so get your mind out of the gutter. And the basic equation still holds: genial beefcake doing knowingly absurd strip numbers for an audience (onscreen and off) that wants to look instead of be looked at, for a change.
That said, the first hour of “Magic Mike XXL” is deadly. Matthew McConaughey has wisely opted out of the sequel — his character, stripper-impresario Dallas, has either passed on or moved overseas, it’s not entirely clear — and with him goes much of the first film’s gonzo spark. Mike (Channing Tatum) has been ditched by his girlfriend (Cody Horn, another no-show) and his furniture design business is gasping for air, so he’s an easy touch when the old gang comes calling for one last road trip to a strippers’ convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
These early scenes are bafflingly inert, the characters nattering about what transpired between films and the audience waiting in vain for something, anything, to happen. If returning screenwriter Reid Crolin actually wrote a script, it doesn’t seem to have been printed out and passed around, since Tatum and the other actors — Joe Manganiello as swaggering but insecure Richie, Matt Bomer as pretty-boy Ken, Kevin Nash as over-the-hill Tarzan, Adam Rodriguez as dumb but ambitious Tito — mostly sit around, desperately winging it. Tatum can do a lot of things, but, dear God, improvising dramatic dialogue isn’t one of them.
In fact, Tatum doesn’t seem very interested in being here at all, and, consequently, Mike’s romance with a dour stripper-turned-photographer named Zoe (Amber Heard, hiding behind her hair) feels depressingly rote. In the void, Manganiello almost accidentally becomes the star of “Magic Mike XXL,” his character forced to ’fess up and admit he doesn’t really like firemen or that Kiss song, so maybe it’s time to find a new routine.
It’s the old Mickey-and-Judy Let’s-Put-on-a-Show story line, just with no clothes. (I now invite you to purge that image from your memory banks.) The most interesting parts of the movie are its least expected, like Jada Pinkett Smith turning up as Rome, an old flame of Mike’s who now hosts an African-American male strip club in an antebellum mansion. Or Donald Glover, who’s finally able to fuse his dual careers as a comic actor (TV’s “Community”) and a hip-hop auteur (as Childish Gambino) in the character of Andre, a scrawny but potent singer-stripper who threatens to make good on all of Teddy Pendergrass’s old promises.
Glover gives “Magic Mike XXL” a shot of extra-likable charisma, so it’s a shame the movie doesn’t do more with him. Original helmer Steven Soderbergh is on hand as executive producer and cinematographer (under his usual nom du camera Peter Andrews), but the directorial reins have been passed on to Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh’s regular assistant director as far back as 1993’s “King of the Hill.” The promotion is sadly unwarranted: Jacobs gets the cast from point A to point B — barely — and individual sequences, like the one in Rome’s villa, work up a powerful party vibe, but there’s no larger sensibility at work. Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” both mocked and celebrated its working-class satyrs. The sequel just tags along after them.
And yet . . . by the time the movie has rolled out of Rome’s place into a long, bawdy gal’s night in a Southern mansion hosted by Andie MacDowell, all that slaphappy, low-rent camaraderie may get to you. There’s a multi-racial, multi-generational generosity extended toward the joyously screaming women the boys play to, a sense of release that’s rowdy but safe — rowdy because it’s safe. The buzz lasts almost to the end, with a delirious boy-band strip number that’s like “Glee” gone Chippendales, and it only deflates with Mike’s unconvincing final dance-off for the heart and smile of Zoe. The truth is, even the moviemakers seem to understand that stars aren’t necessary here. They know the real stars are in the audience.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.