Watching “Magic Mike”
There’s plenty of flesh on display in “Magic Mike,” the new movie about male strippers in Tampa, Fla., and a fair amount of dancing, sex and drugs, too. But the film is more substantive than the subject matter would suggest, which won’t come as a surprise to people who have followed the career of Steven Soderbergh, one of the more cerebral and experimental filmmakers working today, but might disappoint filmgoers simply looking for a good time.
For one thing, “Magic Mike” isn’t so much a fantasy as a deconstruction of a particular type of fantasy. Mike, played by a very charming Channing Tatum, is hard-working and sharp: He does construction during the day, strips at night, and is also trying to start his own custom furniture business. We see how women respond to him at the club, but we also see his life behind the scenes, which isn’t particularly terrible, but requires constant hustling, in an often-futile effort to get ahead. (There’s a sad-yet-homorous scene where he puts on a suit and glasses and visits a loan officer at a local bank; unsurprisingly, he application is denied.)
Mike has been stripping for six years, and was trained by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, whose mid-career renaissance hits a high point in this film), the club’s owner; one night, he brings a 19-year-old named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) backstage and tells him he can earn some money if he helps out. When one of the dancers is too drugged up to perform, Mike shoves Adam on stage. The kid appears to have talent, and Mike takes him under his wing. Adam is delighted by his new job, and the money and women it brings, but his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), isn’t nearly as impressed. There’s a great scene where she shows up at the club, watches Adam perform and leaves, a mixture of emotions playing out on her face.
“Magic Mike” is similar to another Soderbergh project, the little-seen 2009 film “The Girlfriend Experience,” in which adult film star Sasha Grey plays a high-priced call girl. Both films explore what happens when sex and the human body become commodities, but differ in tone: “The Girlfriend Experience” was cold and detached, almost clinical in its focus on money, Wall Street and sex, while “Magic Mike” is fun and warm: I liked Mike, and wanted him to succeed. (Like “The Girlfriend Experience,” “Magic Mike” also draws on the life experience of its lead actor — when he was 19, Channing worked as a stripper.)
Soderbergh doesn’t ignore the more mundane aspects of Mike’s existence, painting a vivid portrait of post-recession Florida life, where the houses and cars are way too big for the average person to afford and gaudy strip clubs offer people a chance to escape their troubles for awhile. We see Mike on stage, but we also see him late at night, straightening out the crumpled dollar bills stuffed into his thong, and during the day, negotiating with his construction foreman for better pay.
“Magic Mike” does have a narrative arc, and the film’s main storyline concerns Adam’s dangerous descent into drugs and drug-dealing. During its final third, the film becomes more of a cautionary tale, showing what happens when SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! Adam unwisely brings ecstasy to a sorority party where he and Mike are stripping. The disastrous outcome causes Mike to finally grow disenchanted with stripping, and to consider other alternatives — alternatives that might win him respect in the real world, and the love of Adam’s sister. Beneath its edgy party club atmosphere, “Magic Mike” is, in the end, a fairly conventional romance.
I really enjoyed “Magic Mike,” but I did have some misgivings about the film’s more serious developments, because I felt that Soderbergh had become something of a moralist — that he took what was initially a fun look at an interesting milieu and turned it into a sincere drama about the dangers of drugs and sexual objectification. Perhaps this was unavoidable — narrative films need plots, after all, and a film where the main characters don’t get into trouble or change in any meaningful way is likely to be unsuccessful. But Mike is a very good stripper and when he quit, I couldn’t help but think it was sort of a shame.
FOOTNOTE: One of my favorite films is “The Full Monty,” about a group of unemployed men in Sheffield, England, who become strippers in order to support themselves. In tone, “The Full Monty” couldn’t be more different from “Magic Mike,” but there are some similarities — the stripping, the economic themes, the lively soundtrack. But “The Full Monty” is far more sunnier in its outlook on stripping — the men in “The Full Monty” regain their self-respect through stripping, while Mike gradually loses his. The two films would make a good double feature, when “Magic Mike” comes out on DVD.
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