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Non-Review Review: Magic Mike

Magic Mike has a lightness of touch that’s been missing from a lot of Steven Soderbergh’s recent work. It’s nowhere near as ambitious as Contagion was, but that isn’t necessary a bad thing from the perspective of the film about male stripper living a rock and roll lifestyle. While Magic Mike won’t get any marks for originality, it does manage to feature two impressive performances and has a refreshing sense of “fun”about it. It a solidly entertaining and diverting piece of entertainment, executed with considerable skill that helps distract from its relatively conventional nature.

It’s getting hot in here…

In many ways, Magic Mike feels like your standard rock and roll biography. A young male who has no direction in his life discovers a creative talent, and harnesses that talent to bring him fame and fortune. Typically, that inexperienced fellow implodes, getting swept up in a sea of sex and drugs, trapped in a glamorous and strangely empty lifestyle. Despite attempts to appear somewhat liberal (there’s all manner of implied debauchery, including casual sex and threesomes), there’s ultimately a sturdy conservative moral at the end of the story. It turns out – stop me if you’ve heard this before – that fame and success can often lead to self-destructive outcomes and some people are just best suited to normative behaviour.

Magic Mike is pretty much and rock and roll biography that just happened to swap out the music for stripping. While Soderbergh makes a number of allusions to the rocky current economic climate – with references to unemployment, payment under the table, and even difficulty securing finance – he never reallydeals with them. He just acknowledges that they’re there and uses them as an excuse to explain how young Adam gets caught up in this sort of scandalous activity.

Matthe McConaug-hey!

It’s quite surreal to watch. Soderbergh is having quite the time directing the film. In fact, the movie reallycomes alive during the dance routines, and most of the dancing is actually handled in a refreshingly non-judgemental way. It isn’t portrayed as anything that is particularly sleazy, and it seems to be something that both audience and participant can both derive a fair amount of pleasure from. However, everything else in the film seems rather curiously moral about the whole thing.

I am fairly sure that is not recommended medical procedure in a situation like this…

Adam can’t seem to handle the pressure of being a successful male stripper. The eponymous Mike can handle it, but still feels “trapped” within the profession – he’s explicitly exploited by his manager, the sleazy Dallas. Mike’s big realisation, without spoiling anything, revolves around whether or not he could continue to do stripping, or whether he’s just kidding himself. Naturally, he also finds himself torn between his no-strings-attached sex buddy (who regularly brings friends to bed, the deviant!) and a girl with whom he has a more spiritual and emotional connection. There’s never really a sense of a physical attraction between the pair.

Of course, none of this is too surprising – these sorts of films are inevitably a little bit socially conservative in moral outlook. It just feels strange because the movie seems to enjoy the stripping so much. Soderbergh actually manages to – with a handful of exceptions that are explicitly identified as due to unprofessional behaviour – make the whole thing look very professional, above-board and just like a regular job. While our leads struggle with it, the troupe features a bunch of barely-defined characters who seem pretty cool with it.

Stripped for action…

Still, if you can get past the conventional plotting (really, there are no surprises in where Magic Mike ends up), it’s an enjoyable film on its own terms. Part of this is down to casting. While Alex Pettyfer doesn’t necessarily distinguish himself as Adam, Channing Tatum actually does a really good job as the eponymous “entrepreneur.” Tatum has a casual charm that makes him easy enough to like, and which helps carry the film in some of its more generic moments.

As demonstrated by his superb turn in 21 Jump Street, Tatum has a wonderful ability to be at ease with himself, and Mike genuinely seems like a casual, affable guy. Even when he’s pursuing Dallas about his equity, he never seems like anything more than a fundamentally decent guy trying to make his way in the world. While actress Cody Horn is woefully miscast as Mike’s love interest (and Adam’s sister), Tatum seems to beat the odds and foster an intriguing chemistry with her. For her part, Horn seems to suck the life right out of the film when left to her own devices – she seems like the only actor in the entire film who doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself.

Almost-naked panic…

While Tatum has enough easy charm to anchor the film, it’s Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the wonderfully sleazy manager of the exotic dancers. Dallas is written as this larger-than-life ham who keeps portraits of himself hanging around, and decorates his house with busts of his own face, and McConaughey relishes the opportunity to turn his Southern charm towards a character who is as gleeful manipulative and self-important as Dallas. McConaughey throws himself completely into the role, and one of the movie’s highlights is hearing Dallas explain the mysteries of exotic dancing to his newest recruit, like a wise old sage channelled through a used car salesman.

Magic Mikeis entertaining. There’s nothing here that will surprise anybody. It’s light, feel-good entertainment. It doesn’t have anything especially insightful to say about anything – in fact, its own moral seems to get a little muddled as it tries to avoid being too judgemental about stripping while still enforcing conventional Hollywood morality when it comes to matters of sex. Soderbergh isn’t pushing himself too hard here, but there’s something to said for watching the director taking it easy.

You can leave your hat on…

Magic Mike has a charm to it that helps its otherwise conventional plot to avoid seeming too boring or mundane. It’s not particularly astute or well-observed, but it is fun. Tatum and McConaughey anchor the film, making it a lot more enjoyable than it would otherwise be. It’s not anything resembling Soderbergh at his most ambitious, but his comfort zone isn’t too bad a place to be.

2 Responses

  1. While I liked Magic Mike, I think the biggest problem was that the story shifted from being Adam’s story to being Mike’s story about halfway through. Once Adam became completely “indoctrinated”, the story was no longer about the lure of the glamorous stripping lifestlye for a young man and became about an older stripper’s desire to leave the business. It kind of felt like the movie had only the first half of Adam’s arc and only the second half of Mike’s. The first half of the movie with Adam being essentially the stand-in for the audience had way more energy and way more fun than the second half.

    That being said, I’ve become a fan of Channing Tatum. Even in not-so great movies like The Vow or Dear John Tatum is consistently one of the best parts of those movies. And obviously he was brilliant in 21 Jump Street.

    • It’s a fair point. I also love how compeltely predictable Adam’s arc was. Despite the fact that everybody else seemed relatively able to handle it, he would inevitably implode. And implode spectacularly.

      Tatum is great. While I wouldn’t label him the next great movie sar or anything, he was this wonderfully endearing charm to him.

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