Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Riley Keough, Betsy Brandt
Running Time: 110 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Going by only commercials and advertisements, you couldn't be blamed for thinking Magic Mike is entirely about male stripping. But I get it. There's a movie to sell and the smartest way to fill theater seats was to cater to the women and gay men interested in seeing Channing Tatum star in "Chippendales: The Movie." After watching its trailer, that audience definitely wouldn't be wrong in expecting two hours of non-stop stripping and maybe some laughs. So, you have to wonder how they reacted when one of the very first scenes featured topless female nudity. Or that there are only really three of four big stripping sequences. And that the picture above is a far better representation of what the film is than all those billboards of shirtless guys in ties and suspenders. It's kind of a miracle the movie did as well as it did at the box office considering how much it managed to misrepresent itself. But it's good news for people who like smart movies. But anyone familiar with Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker knew we wouldn't be getting anything too commercial or fluffy. And we don't. Yet, the movie is still fun in its own cool, laid back kind of way.
Mike Lane (Tatum) is a 30 year-old budding Tampa entrepreneur who dreams of one day owning his own custom furniture business, but works odd jobs in construction during the day to make ends meet. When 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) quits his first day on the site, Mike takes him under his wing and introduces him to his night gig as a professional dancer at the Xquisite Strip Club, which is owned by a washed-up, forty-something stripper named Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). He has ambitions of someday building an empire, but his biggest star is "Magic Mike". Hired initially as the prop guy, Adam is thrown on stage and initiated into the world of male dancing with Mike promising his disapproving sister Brooke (Cody Horn) that he'll look after him. He's also clearly interested in her, but seems tied up in very casual relationship with vapid grad student Joanna (Olivia Munn). Despite being a quick learner, Adam's inexperience and recklessness prove to be a problem off stage, as he plunges headfirst into the hedonistic lifestyle accompanying the job. Just as Dallas' greed and ego start growing out of control, so does Mike's desires to possibly start exploring other options in life.
Making the character of Adam an entry point into this male stripping world was the smartest decision Soderbergh could have made to appeal to more skeptical viewers uninterested in seeing a "stripper movie," which this isn't anyway. For the first half of of the movie he's our protagonist, seeming as put-off and uncomfortable with the whole idea of real guys actually doing this to earn money as we are. But the funniest aspect of this just might be how Mike tricks Adam into thinking they'll be spending the night hitting clubs and picking up women. In a way, this is true. He just leaves out the part about him being a male stripper, perhaps knowing the inevitable reaction. Audiences don't have that luxury and you kind of wish they did because the biggest surprise of the film is how the profession is shown to have a backstage grind that's comparable to any other occupation.Which isn't to say it's boring or they're pushing papers, but we see the work and it's definitely a job. At first, it would appear to take more time in the gym than the dance floor to be able to do this but there's definitely a stark contrast between some of the goofy, hilariously choreographed routines they do as a group and when "Magic Mike" takes the stage solo.
The screenplay is based on Tatum's own brief run as a stripper before he got into acting so it would make sense he'd know what he's doing out there. Even with that information, it'll still surprising just how good a dancer he is, notwithstanding the actual stripping, which almost seems like an afterthought. And it results in one of the best sequences, as Adam's overprotective, uptight sister Brooke begrudgingly watches Mike's show-stopping routine with the same perpetual scowl she has plastered on her face throughout three quarters of the picture's running time. And it's such a great scowl because you always see this hint of a tiny smile cracking through that we know we can look forward to finally seeing by the end of the film. She hates that her brother has is resorting to doing this for cash, but can't conceal her guilt that Mike's slowly growing on her. Tatum will never be accused of being an actor of incredible range (at least yet), but within that range he can be excel, as he proved earlier in the year with 21 Jump Street and Haywire. His low, one-key performance here is as strong as those, if not stronger because he has to carry much of the film's load as its title character. He also has real sparks with newcomer Cody Horn, who simply possesses this grounded, natural likability on screen that does actually make you want to root for the potential couple to succeed and for Adam (whom Pettyfer plays with endearing cluelessness) to stay out of trouble. Any guy reluctant to see this would have problems finding a better excuse than her.
When the initially shy and unassuming Adam starts falling in with the wrong crowd and is swallowep by the limelight, the film travels in a more familiar, but no less effective, route, as Mike struggles to keep his promise to look out for the kid. Hovering on the sidelines, but hanging over the movie like a dark cloud, is Matthew McConaughey's performance as Dallas. We really don't know anything about the guy and even the one scene in which he's discussed doesn't reveal much history, but it hardly matters. We sense everything there is to know the second McConaughey appears in the opening scene as the M.C. and in each appearance following it. This is a man consumed with the spotlight living all his dreams vicariously through his younger charges, whom he basically treats as cattle. Driven by greed and greener pastures in Miami, he'll have to be dragged offstage kicking and screaming before he's pathetically milked every last second of his 15 remaining minutes of notoriety. There's something hauntingly pathetic about it, and that trademark charisma and likability McConaughey brings to even the unworthiest projects is finally given its proper outlet, but with a sharper, darker edge that really plays to all his strengths (even incorporating his infamous bongo drumming skills). Basically Mike is the future Dallas, unless he escapes out right now. The rest of the talent (played by Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez and former WWE star Kevin Nash) don't figure in too much, but still have some funny individual character moments that give us a glimpses into their personalities and the locker room atmosphere backstage. Olivia Munn has just a few scenes as Joanna, but in them she successfully manages to make her pretentious character as unlikable and irritating as can be. And, yes, that's a compliment.
Magic Mike isn't a chick flick in the slightest. In fact, I'm more than willing to bet most women who see it expecting a comedic flesh fest will probably find it boring since the tone and content is so far removed from from what it was advertised as. It's actually about something, with the stripping world merely providing the fascinating backdrop for a story about a guy reaching a crossroads and needing to change. Even the way it's lensed, in that typical hazy, washed-out Soderbergh style he's perfected of late, suggests we're watching a documentary or being invited to just hang out and eavesdrop on these characters' lives. Some will find more fun in that approach than others, lending a bit of irony to the fact that the audience of serious moviegoers most likely to appreciate this are the ones least likely to give it a chance because of the subject matter or how they'll be perceived having seen it.The profession may be stripping, but that it could have been replaced with any other job and still been an interesting film speaks to the fact that the screenplay is, first and foremost, about these characters and their relationships, even while doubling as kind of a modern social commentary. I was hoping it would play like this. More truthfully, I was hoping it would play as anything other than what it was promoted as. Luckily, it does. And it's still a good time.