Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Matthew McConaughey, Olivia Munn
Review: 3.5 stars (of five)
Steven Soderbergh’s latest film makes me think about sex; about the way men and women present their bodies; about the way heterosexual fantasies are packaged, sold and accepted. Magic Mike is a small, fun film that’s not trying to be anything more than entertaining, and therefore is a success. But more than its combination of outré stripper antics and familiar working-class struggle (equal parts Flashdance and The Wrestler), I was intrigued by a view of our culture’s sexual language that rarely makes it into mass entertainment.
There’s a difference between the ironic, winking sexual machismo of the film’s all-male strip club and the way female sexuality is often presented in media. Maybe the main difference is the sense of danger. Visit a club where women take off their clothes to bad music, and you’re generally in a dark, seedy parlor among furtive, solitary men who look grimy and sad. The sexuality of the women on stage tends to be dangerous. They’re wild, lustful—either predatory or available for any depredation—and the men, in either their introverted creepiness or their raucous fratboy groupthink seem only a vodka shot and an opportunity removed from rape. Hey, strip-club aficionados, your mileage may vary, but this is how a few urban excursions struck me.
My only experience of the male-performer alternative is Magic Mike. Maybe it was sanitized for the screen, but it seems healthier. Most of the stage work is choreographed (and ironic), themed routines rather than the routine bumping and grinding of a solitary woman. Ironic choreography—that’s it! The men present the show, and the women receive it, with the understanding that this is not what “sexy” is. I don’t think you find the same self-awareness when it’s women gyrating for men.
The men are simultaneously winking at their audience—this is all a joke, and yet they’re committed to it, and the women play along. It just seems … healthier.
The movie itself (finally, the review begins) is, overall, all right. If you’re tempted to see it for the male strip club scenes, they are very entertaining. If you’re interested in story, the film isn’t telling a fresh one. Remember how Jennifer Beals, in Flashdance, was using stripping as … I forget, didn’t she want to be a “real” dancer? And Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, he was all broken down by his ignoble profession. In Soderbergh’s film, Tatum’s Mike is at the intersection of the two. Stripping is one of his three (or more?) entrepreneurial efforts geared toward his dream of opening his own business as a custom furniture maker. But will he achieve his goal, or is it a pipe dream? And will the dissolute world of stripping hold him in his clutches forever? Familiar stuff, but well-acted.
Tatum, the former model whose own stint as a stripper reportedly informed Reid Carolin’s script, goes all-in on stage. The dude is acrobatic and delightfully shameless. Off-stage, he’s equal parts charming seducer and focused businessman. You see the soul beneath the pecs and glutes. Where a film usually makes the main character our entry point into a new world, this film shows Mike already in his groove.It’s his recruitment of a young slacker named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) that lets the film show us the stripping ropes. Cody Horn plays Adam’s disapproving but cautiously supportive sister, Brooke, on whom Mike develops a crush. She’s great, given a much less over-the-top role but still managing to hold her own, and connect with the viewer.
The lovely interplay between Horn and Tatum underscores Soderbergh’s skill with romance. His films often feature sexual dysfunction or an emotional coldness, yet when he hooks up his leads, there’s real charm and real novelty (Clooney and Lopez in Out of Sight being the best example). Late in the film, when Soderbergh and Carolin start to circle the ultimate question of whether Mike will escape this unsustainable lifestyle or be dragged under by it, the resolution is handled simply, subtly, and with that trademark skill Soderbergh brings to his too-few scenes of romantic entanglement.
Rounding out the cast, Olivia Munn has a fairly predictable role to play, but she plays it well. It’s the most engaging performance in her career of big-screen cameos. And there’s Matthew McConaughey, chewing scenery as the owner of the strip club. He’s oily and slick and entertaining to watch every time he’s on screen, without being over the top (relative to a film whose very environment is consistently over the top).
The direction is mostly in a dingy, near-verite style and, with few exceptions, Soderbergh stays out of his actors’ way and lets the story unfold. The script provides some clever dialogue as characters flirt and wisecrack and strut, and there are real dangers—most notably in the opening morning-after scene between Munn and Tatum—where the rhythms of flirtation become the rhythm of sitcom writing, which risks undermining the film.
In the end, it’s a film worth seeing. Soderbergh is one of America’s best working directors, and he all but invisibly presents a brisk narrative that mixes Mike’s life with the onstage numbers. The story is familiar and not consequential, but it’s exploiting a fairly underused setting, and it’s definitely not the same old big-studio pablum.