Film Review: "MAGIC MIKE"
Published: Friday, June 29, 2012
Updated: Friday, June 29, 2012 14:06
“MAGIC MIKE” is being sold as the male stripper movie, and if that’s what you want, well, you’ll definitely get your eleven-and-a-half crumpled dollar bills worth. In fact, it probably feels more like a trip to the club than you’d expect – it’s nothing less than an overwhelming sensory experience; exploding constantly with flashy dance sequences. Sure, these are later contrasted with the desolate, consumerist emptiness of daytime Tampa – but it’s shot with exuberance all the same, and those coming for the peepshow won’t leave disappointed.
But director Steven Soderbergh (the soon-to-be-legendary craftsman responsible for many micro-budget indies and the “OCEAN’S ELEVEN” franchise, among other films) continues along in his path of refusing to ever follow Hollywood standards: where most films would drop the consequences of drug use and lifestyle choices onto characters justly as if in an fable, Soderbergh allows his film to swerve and shuffle through numerous episodic arcs. None of them ever pay off as you would expect, and that’s his genius – he’s one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood dedicated to telling us stories we haven’t heard twenty times before.
Channing Tatum is the eponymous stripper, the lead act in a Tampa club where bachelorette and 21st birthday parties revel in his beefcake looks and fantasy-fulfilling facades. But off the stage he’s just scrambling for a place in the world – dreaming up self-sufficient business plans, trying to foster threesome partners into real relationships, and generally being disappointed that he’s one of the only people around actively trying to get his shit together (one heartbreaking scene, echoing a classic sequence from “SHAMPOO”, sees his hopes at a bank loan crash once he realizes cash doesn’t always mean as much as social standing.)
Tatum has already made an uncontested claim on being the breakout star of the year, giving three star-making performances in six months (this is the fourth, and the second with Soderbergh.) Mike is his most well-rounded role yet – seeing the subtle hints of him longing-for-more mid-dance, or the even rarer moments where he might achieve something like transcendence on stage, we realize just how good Tatum is. We knew he could do action (“HAYWIRE”,) be a romantic lead (“THE VOW”,) and then we found out he could do comedy (“21 JUMP STREET”.) With “MIKE”, he passes the toughest test of all: he plays a real human being with a carefully-calculated humanity actors twice his age struggle to achieve.
But the real story is the continuing resurgence of Matthew McConaughey, whose finally living up to his “Dazed & Confused” potential with brilliant character turn after brilliant character turn (see: “BERNIE”, his episodes on “Eastbound & Down”, and the underrated “LINCOLN LAWYER”.) Here he plays – scratch that, here he becomes Dallas, owner of the Xquisite Male Revue, and the PT Barnum to Tatum’s massive elephant.
Grinding, gyrating, and breathing fire, McConaughey commands the screen with silly seriousness; he’s the ringleader trying to shape this crew of dancers into something that can get him out of the dregs of Tampa and into the idealized paradise of Miami. As with everyone here, he’s just trying to scrape his way into a little more money, into a little more success - because that must mean a happier life.
The women of the film seem a mere afterthought, partly thanks to Soderbergh’s episodic narrative construction (they’ll often disappear just long enough for you to wonder where they went.) But I also wasn’t on board with Cody Horn’s not-entirely-convincing attempt at embodying the brilliant ethereal girl who Mike sees as a symbol of escape – from both his apparently embarrassing profession (he rarely cops to it in dialogue, interestingly,) and from an endless string of meaningless sex.
She’s got the look, and she doesn’t do terribly with the elitism either. She flip-flops between looking at Tatum with awe and disgust, which gives us a better peek into her character than any backstory would (the credit for these switches probably belongs to Soderbergh, I admit.) The problem is Channing Tatum - who I was staring to believe could do anything - has no chemistry with her. At all.
In fact, it’s negative chemistry – she’s supposed to mean the world to Mike, and I’m not sure they ever convinced they had hung out for more than two weeks. They look at each other like brother and sister, Mike never once gazing at her with the same passion we see on the stage. True, Soderbergh keeps them in their separate corners for most of the movie – but this just isn’t going to cut it from the man who brought us Clooney and J-Lo in “OUT OF SIGHT”.
But luckily, he does use every other trick in his toolbox to give “MIKE” a look, a feel, and an attitude that is becoming, film after film, even more authorial and distinctive. Soderbergh has hit the stage in his career where he’s most interested in deconstructing genre – he made an Asian martial arts film American style in “HAYWIRE”, before that he made the world’s most antiseptic disaster film in “CONTAGION”, before that he made a spy film about ineptitude in “THE INFORMANT!”, and before that he cast a porn star to lead in an academically structured film about the economy in “THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE”. If you can’t tell, he’s not all that interested in fulfilling basic genre expectations.
On one level, he’s working off of the classic Howard Hawks structure with “MIKE”; setting up a workplace (the stripclub) with its own hierarchy (very well defined here) then playing around with the colliding egos of the men inside of it, before leveling things with woman who can outsmart all of them. But his film is as much about stripping as “ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE” is about being a cop. Like that similarly sun-tinted film from yesteryear, a monotonous and youth-draining occupation is simply used as a vessel for an existential parable far too dark to exist without some excitement to lighten things up.