Magic Mike *** (out of five)
Steven Soderbergh is an experimental filmmaker. Not that he makes video installations with trippy visuals and no narrative; rather, he experiments with what sort of stories cinema can be used to tell. The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire, The Informant!, Che, The Good German, Bubble, Full Frontal, Solaris, Schizopolis, Kafka and his breakthrough debut feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape are all intensely personal visions that are far from the films that naturally occur within Hollywood studios, or are written by people who read books on screenwriting. They are risky ventures with intriguing, uncommon and sometimes just plain strange narratives. Each feels as though they have been made so that he could answer the question of whether they should be made. “Would a movie about a prostitute who provides a ‘girlfriend experience’ be enjoyable? Well, let’s shoot it and find out!”
Magic Mike, although seemingly a commercial piece, is definitely in this section of his extremely prodigious output. Common wisdom has it that, while working with star Channing Tatum on Haywire, Soderbergh found out that Tatum’s past included being a male stripper. Soderbergh thought, “Perhaps there’s a story in that?” So… he made it.
Interestingly, Tatum does not play the Tatum role. That goes to Alex Pettyfer, as 19 year old college dropout Adam, who drifts to Tampa, Florida, simply because his sister (Cody Horn) lives there and he can crash on her couch. Trying to pick up work on a building site, he meets Mike (Tatum), a thirty-year-old self-proscribed entrepreneur who introduces him to the lucrative world of Xquisite, a male strip club run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). One of the regular strippers in the team drinks too much and can’t perform his signature number; Adam goes out onto the stage and strips – and a star is born.
What works in the movie are its cast, its locale, and, of course, its unique milieu. We’re shown the behind-the-scenes workings of a male strip club in much the same way we become privy to the workings of professional wrestling in The Wrestler, although it’s obviously much, much more fun being a stripper. We’re thoroughly immersed in the “culture” of Tampa – which involves every night being a party night, endless young tourists looking to get blasted, sun, sand, surf, (loads of) booze and (somewhat less) drugs. It’s a world that’s made for the young, and Mike’s dilemma is that, at 30, he may be getting a little old for it.
McConaughey’s Dallas will never get too old for it. He’s a party-boy lifer, who runs his club like a coach might run a football team, except way more leniently (tellingly, that stripper who got too drunk to perform is never remotely chastised for it). He’s still got the body of a stripper (which is to say, a perfect body made up of ripped muscles and abs, abs, abs) and hosts every evening’s performance, though he doesn’t strip anymore himself. Essentially likable, he’s got a lot of negative qualities, and there’s a chilly danger running beneath the surface that makes him almost always uncomfortable to watch. It’s a really fantastic performance, one that McConaughey seems to have been born to play, and I am placing early money on him getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor come the new year.
Tatum is extremely unlikely to get a nomination for Best Actor, but that’s only because it’s not an “Oscar” type of role (McConaughey’s is, because Dallas is showy, a little villainous, and much more of an extreme character than Tatum’s Mike). Tatum is extremely good as Mike, goofy, fun-loving, highly sexual, funny, quite smart and more than a little vain. He’s amazingly natural and free on screen, a genuinely likable, very American movie star with much more range than he’s probably been given credit for until now (or at least until 21 Jump Street, which is where he showed off his very strong comedic chops). Pettyfer is equally good as Adam, and the rest of the strippers are very believable. The only uneasy performance is Horn’s, as Brooke, Adam’s sister and Mike’s potential love interest, whose easy-going acting style is fine for this sort of naturalistic film but contains no zing, no spice. Essentially, it’s hard to see what Mike sees in her.
The problem is in the stakes. Theses are amazingly attractive people having an unbelievably good time in a mini-paradise. Much of the movie is spent watching them enjoying themselves immensely, getting drunk, having great sex with an endless income of gorgeous young strangers who then do the polite thing of getting on planes and leaving them free to hook up with the next night’s revelers. In that sense, it feels a little like the TV show Entourage, which ultimately made you want to throttle its ensemble cast of characters for having such a god-darned perfect life.
Soderbergh knows that drama needs conflict, but the conflict here is its false note. It feels in there because a movie needs it, when, really, there’s not much to be conflicted about for anyone in this movie. Mike’s goal is modest: he’d like to make some custom furniture. It’s hardly wanting to rob the world’s biggest casino, win a class action lawsuit against a huge multi-national corporation, or stop the flow of drugs form Mexico into the US, or lead Cuba’s revolution. The stakes are extremely skimpy here, and I think everyone knows it. So, to compensate, there’s an awful lot of stripping – which is what some people will go to see. A lot already have. The film, budgeted at only seven million dollars, has already made over one hundred million in the US alone. So if indeed Soderbergh asked himself, “Does the world want a movie about male stripping?”, he’s got his answer.
Mike considers quitting stripping during the course of the movie. Soderbergh has said repeatedly that he wants to quit making movies. The obvious question pertains to both: Why would you? Soderbergh has two more films coming up, so perhaps making Magic Mike answered more than just one question for him. I hope so. Even his lesser experiments are far more interesting than ninety percent of Hollywood product, and I want him to go on strutting his stuff for us forever.