October 25, 2012


by Vadim Rizov

Magic Mike

The anomalous smash of the year, Magic Mike's transgressions are mild but—in the context of a summer Hollywood piece of counter-programming—bold. The main selling point is naked male bodies: not, notably, of muscled heroes in various poses of violence, but in dance numbers only slightly raunchier than the average Step Up number. Beefcake bro Channing Tatum strips down in a role based on his experiences as a 19-year-old male stripper, a spectacle with the potential to make heterosexual American men nervous.

The opening weekend audience was 73% female, and it's more than likely that much of the audience throughout its run consisted of straight women and gay men. I saw the film twice: once in Manhattan, and a few months later in Omaha, Nebraska, with a friend and his girlfriend. There, the young lady taking our ticket noticed that we were one female short of an excuse to be attending and giggled in our faces. For the next few days, my pal argued with multiple Midwestern males that they effectively needed to get over it. The typical response was that, given by someone who had no problem with his mom and sister seeing it—but couldn't fathom why a straight man would voluntarily sit through it.

Magic Mike

Ironically, much of director Steven Soderbergh's latest is effectively a hetero male fantasy. Mike (Tatum) works alongside a crew of guys who party like minor '80s MTV deities (albeit as relegated to life in Tampa), drinking hard and picking up their adoring audiences after the show with no consequences. The trade-off is exposing their flesh in excitingly choreographed, expertly slick numbers, which cause none of them discomfort. The camera's locked down and undercranked, giving every pop-and-lock a shiny, near-3D gloss. Mike views his stripping, delusionally, as just one income stream that doesn't define him (he also runs a detailing business, though we only see the truck, and he works in construction on the side). The plan is to conserve his funds to start a custom furniture enterprise, but in the film's tensest scene, his application for a supporting loan is turned down. Instead, the teller offers to help him enroll in a program for people with "distressed" credit. "I read the news, lady," Mike snaps, "and the only thing that's distressed is y'all." Like Julia Roberts and her cleavage in Erin Brockovich and Sasha Grey's upscale prostitution in The Girlfriend Experience, Tatum responds to economic marginalization by exploiting his only pre-existing asset: his body.

Mike is instantly recognizable as Soderbergh's work. Per usual acting as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh again employs heavy color correction to give every daylight frame a uniform golden hue, and cuts are kept to a bare minimum. When the camera moves, it's with dazzling purpose. The most impressive gesture comes on the beach. It's July 4th, and Mike is lightly partying with his fellow strippers, including newly-adopted protégé Alex (Alex Pettyfer) and his primly disapproving sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Up until this point, Mike and Brooke's relationship has been ambiguously feuding. Mike's a hedonist who apparently never sleeps, Brooke a responsible nurse's assistant. Their first extended tête-à-tête is a walk around the tiny cove's shore. The camera's locked down at the center, following them with a slow 360-degree pan, imperceptibly moving closer and further. One conversation, one shot: what could be banal is inconspicuously hypnotic.

Magic Mike

Virtuosity is needed, because the plot hews perilously close to standard fall-into-decadence-and-rise-into-responsibility moralism. Until Mike ditches his skeezy occupation, he doesn't stand a chance with Brooke. The movie's sleaziest scenes are its most fun, especially as overseen by strip club boss Dallas, played by Matthew McConaughey as a variant on Dazed and Confused's Wooderson. McConaughey opens the movie by intoning "Alright, alright, alright" and extols the virtues of having nothing but a good time throughout. At one point, he plays the bongos nearly-naked, much as in McConaughey's relatively famous 1999 bust for the same crime. Likewise, Tatum's role is effectively meta, since he plays a guy seen as a largely talentless brick who happens to look good with his shirt off, recalling the reviews greeting many of his first movies.

A lightweight good time inevitably comes crashing down, but the movie doesn't fall apart. The message doesn't seem to be so much "male stripping is demeaning" (a moral this movie couldn't deliver with a straight face in any case) as "don't sell drugs, and definitely don't party with a girl who walks around with a guinea pig." Alex does both of the latter, and his subsequent downfall means Mike has to bail him out. Monstrously ungrateful, Alex serves as one of the year's most despicable supporting characters, an argument for leaving an industry whose participants can't be trusted. What begins as a bromantic comedy ends, conventionally but satisfyingly, as a nicely low-key romantic drama. It's a movie that affirms heterosexual hegemony while making a large chunk of the audience predisposed to espouse those values—all while remaining great fun—is a rare specimen. Magic Mike succeeds on all counts.

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Posted by ahillis at October 25, 2012 4:39 PM