The great filmmakers make it look so easy, sometimes to their own detriment. Steven Soderbergh got the worst of it in a couple different ways with 2012’s Magic Mike: the studio knew it could practically print money among the female audience by focusing on the fact that the film is about male strippers, so not a lot of attention was paid to the movie’s drama. However, the drama itself is pulled off so easily that it doesn’t seem so intense.
The story is not that much different from Showgirls, really, it’s just told from a different point of view. The audience follows an old hand at the male-stripping game, the titular Mike, played by Channing Tatum. He meets an aimless 19-year-old kid (Alex Pettyfer) and turns him into The Kid, taking him under his wing and teaching him the ropes of the business. The real question is if Mike can emerge from under the wing of Dallas (Matthew McConaghey), the owner of the club where they both work.
It goes without saying that the strip-club performances are well-done. Soderbergh availed himself of a professional choreographer, and Tatum’s first hits were the dance films Step Up and Step Up 2, so a certain amount of craft is to be expected. Tatum’s first big dance scene reminded me a bit of a martial-arts movie, such as Tony Jaa’s Ong-Bak or Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss, in that the movie had done a good job of selling the lead character as a master of his craft and then proved it with a lengthy display. Soderbergh shows expert control of his camera in the rest of the movie as well; one remarkable scene is shot from inside a moving car, looking up at an inhabitant in the backseat!
However, none of the technical mastery really gets to the heart of what stripping is. Soderbergh puts in a significant effort to show that male stripping is not so different from female: both types of audience can driven into a similar type of frenzy by good performers, and “no kissing” is the rule for men as well as women. Tatum is a bit old for doing this sort of thing, just like the female strippers in films such as The Wrestler and Showgirls.
But the biggest danger for the male strippers in this movie is trouble with money or drugs; the worst fate is that they could wake up one day, be 40 years old, and see no life ahead beyond the next lap dance. For female strippers both in movies and real life, that is not the case, as they’re often turned into prostitutes and ordered to sell that which they only tease customers with. Tatum and his mates retain full power over themselves and their sexuality — they even bring female customers on stage, which would never happen with genders reversed — and in fact the act of stripping is empowering for newcomers like The Kid.
In the movie’s best scene, Soderbergh demonstrates the limits of Mike’s power, as he tries to get a loan from a female bank employee who clearly recognizes him from a show. Even as embarrassed (and possibly turned on) as she is, it doesn’t help him in the cold light of day. Still, the small victory of her embarrassment is better than most female strippers can have. A big part of Marisa Tomei’s role as a stripper in The Wrestler is not just that her life is slipping away, but that it’s accompanied by taunts from the cruel frat boys who insult her on stage. For Mike, at no point does it seem like stakes so serious are in play. He’s lacking for true love and can’t make it as an entrepreneur, but no one is cruel to him or tries to make him feel small. Even when The Kid gets mixed up in some stuff he shouldn’t be doing, it doesn’t seem like he’s anything else other than, well, a stupid kid.
Or perhaps it’s the actors that deliver the film’s lightweight feeling. Tatum gets a bad rap for being a lunkhead, but he’s actually a decent actor (I recommend his early film A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, which will change your mind about both Tatum and Shia LaBouf as actors). The problem is that he has such an easy charisma that even when he is having an existential crisis, it doesn’t ever look like he’s struggling with anything. By rights I should hate the Mike character; as Dallas says, he’s everything that I can never be to a wife or girlfriend. But even then, he’s just impossible not to root for.
The supporting characters in general are as light as the film’s touch on sexual issues. Only McCounaghey really distinguishes himself, as a character who so thoroughly bullshits everyone else in his life that he has begun to believe his own bullshit. Olivia Munn also plays an interesting role as Mike’s regular hook-up who actively rejects any further advances into her life. But Pettyfer’s American accent is wildly dodgy, and Cody Horn as his sister can’t seem to hit any note other than “snarky.”
Magic Mike ends on the optimistic note that taking control of one’s own life and making a new start is tantamount to a happy ending. But I never felt that Mike was out of control of his own life. Part of it is Tatum’s effortless domination of just about every scene he’s in, part of it is that male strippers seem to be in control of their sexual power in a way that female strippers never are. Whatever it is, is makes Magic Mike a trifle: a well-made, entertaining trifle, but a trifle nonetheless.
Reviewed by Mark Young