by Matt Smith
Magic Mike opens with a shirtless Matthew McConaughey laying down the rules of touching to a screaming crowd of women there to see the lurid and (acknowledged) ludicrous stage show of the Xquisite All Male Revue. “The law says you cannot touch. But I think I see a lotta lawwwbreakers up in this house tonight,” he tells them. McConaughey’s trademark drawl and hand placement on the various parts of his body while on stage are no doubt the subject of a great number of fantasies, male and female, and combined with the appeal of the film’s star, Channing Tatum, will help ensure a high volume of audience members looking to safely explore a seedy dance club within the confines of the local cineplex. And while all manner of recently-waxed chests and ass-less banana hammocks do make multiple appearances on all the principle cast members, I have a feeling that some of the film’s more sordid moments might offset the enjoyment of thumping music and bared flesh.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, ostensibly the first in his final run of four films due out in the next eighteen months, Magic Mike follows slacker college drop-out Adam’s rise to prominence in the Tampa area strip club scene over the course of one really crazy summer. Adam becomes involved with Magic Mike (Tatum) and the Xquisite club after a quick cover for one of the other guys, Tarzan (Kevin Nash), who passed out wasted in the dressing room one night. After awkwardly stripping down “like a 16 year-old in a locker room” to a version of “Like a Virgin,” he jumps down into the crowd and kisses a girl out for her twenty-first birthday. A risky move, he is later told by McConaughey’s Dallas, but one that paid off. Soon Adam’s a full-fledged member of the group, hanging out with Mike and pissing off his sister, Brooke, who Mike seems to have the hots for.
As he becomes more involved with and popular at Xquisite, Adam is drawn further down the rabbit hole and the film slowly begins to take a darker turn. He owes money to drug cartels, becomes an addict himself, and loses his grip on reality. Failing to keep Adam safe, Mike begins to question his own lifestyle, especially when it becomes more and more apparent that he may just end up like the oldest stripper on the crew, Tarzan, washed up and with blown-out knees, or worse, like Dallas, a manipulative no-good sumbitch who is only out to make more money for himself to pour into nonsense like self-portraits and microfiber furnishings. After losing his fuck-buddy relationship with a college student (a terrific and subtle Olivia Munn), Mike’s world is completely without meaning, and he takes Adam out on an all-night bender that results in his young protege’s near-death. Mike must decide whether to stay on with the crew or whether to quit and become legitimate, pursuing his dream of selling custom-made one-of-a-kind furniture.
Magic Mike is definitely one of the more mainstream projects for Soderbergh, and he essentially uses the freedom attained by personally co-financing the film with his star to toy around with film form. Aside from the jumps in continuity or the non-linear overlaying of sound and image at the beginning and end of scenes, he also somewhat radically re-envisions the choreographed dance number, shooting mostly flat images with the only real camera move to glide further out on the stage as the dancer does, all the while focused mainly on giving a clear frontal view of the action. Even when the camera does assume a different position in the club, it is mostly from the vantage points of a patron, sitting at a table and taking in the sights. This gives the numbers the look of something chintzy and fake, and not in any real way fully idealized. The image does not bow to the demands of movie musicals.
There’s an odd stylistically-defined dichotomy that exists here, as in other Soderbergh movies, between the real world and the fantasy land that his characters inhabit. Known for his cool detachment, it’s a bit odd to see him take on a move that is often hot-blooded and energetic, and to see that energy transmuted through the various aesthetic choices he is gamely willing to make. When Adam and Mike are working on a roofing crew, or hanging out by the beach at a 4th of July party the film is full of warmth; it’s all hues of brown and tan and washed-out, sun-drenched images. The nightlife–the interiors and exteriors of Xquisite, the exclusive clubs, the sorority house party–is all cool blues and hot reds. In some ways it’s similar to the color filter schemes used for other films like Traffic and The Girlfriend Experience, where work, even the different types of work, and play is divided into a clearly defined palette.
This is one of his more mainstream projects, but he essentially uses the freedom of co-financing the film with Channing Tatum to toy around with jumps in continuity, color filters (of which he is known to have a fondness), and even to radically re-envision the way a choreographed dance number is shot for a major Hollywood release. He shoots them pretty flat, with only minimal swooping and dollying. Mostly the camera moves out when the performer walks out toward the crowd, and other times it merely assumes the vantage point of one of the patrons of the club. It should be noted that the most flashy camera movement in the whole movie comes at the beginning, with a pan from right to left in a POV shot from the bed of Mike’s pickup truck.
Continuing in a recent tradition, this is also another fiction film directed by Soderbergh inspired by and starring someone similar to the title character. In The Girlfriend Experience he cast former adult star Sasha Grey as a high priced call girl, and in Haywire he used MMA champ Gina Carano’s real abilities to create an action flick of frequent beat-downs. Magic Mike blends truth and fiction and is loosely based on the experience of Channing Tatum during his brief sting as a male dancer before moving on to just dancing and then to acting in dance movies. As the title character he gives a pretty solid performance, but I couldn’t help but feel that, if he actually is as “douche-bro”-y (I’m totally trademarking “douche-bro” here) in real life as he is in this movie, I would really, really hate hanging out with Channing Tatum.
But I do love McConaughey’s turn here as the seedy owner of Xquisite. Dallas is a character who is sort of like Burt Reynolds in Boogie Night, minus the compassion and most of the likability. A constant schemer and small-thinker (he can only see big things in a move to the big time city of Miami), he strings his performers along with the promise of bigger paydays and possible shares in the Miami club’s total haul. When we finally see McConaughey take the stage at the end of the film, performing to Kiss’s “Dr. Love,” he is taking the final bow in Tampa, attempting to pay back the city that has made him the monster he is yet to become. If the promised sequel doesn’t follow what happens to Dallas in any way, it will lose most of its worth automatically. The audience deserves to see what a horrid human being this character can truly be when exposed to an even bigger set of goals and ambitions.
Magic Mike is one of the great surprises of the summer. It’s mainstream without seeming like it, and in spite of its marketing to the suburban housewife set who dreams of seeing John Mangianello’s Big Dick Richie get down and dirty, the film has other things on its mind. A portrait of descent into hell and at least one redemption, it’s the reigning American stripper epic we were promised in the 90s only to be let down by Striptease and the misunderstood Showgirls. Soderbergh jettisons the knowing winks of the latter and the camp of the former (mostly) to craft a film that is engaging for any audience member willing to look past the veneer of oiled-up hot hunks in thongs. It’s really a shame that more men won’t give this movie the time of day because it ultimately speaks more to masculine insecurities, fears, relationships, hopes and dreams than anything else.
4 out of 5 stars.