Someday, someone will write a lengthy, scholarly deconstructionist essay on Steven Soderbergh’s use of the late-‘70s/early-‘80s Saul Bass-designed Warner Brothers logo at the beginning and Foreigner’s “Feels Like The First Time” at the end of his new movie Magic Mike, but here’s a thumbnail sketch: he’s earmarking it to the proper era, because he basically made the male Flashdance. It’s not just that he spends the entire film slyly subverting traditional on-screen gender roles (more on that later), it’s that the whole movie has a distinctively go-go ‘80s sensibility. It’s like one of those Tom Cruise movies where he’s the best ____ in the world (bartender, racecar driver, pool player, whatever); here, Channing Tatum is the best male stripper. There’s one true ‘80s Cruise movie in theaters right now, and it ain’t Rock of Ages.
It’s fairly safe to bet that a good, healthy portion of Magic Mike’s audience isn’t going to be there to enjoy the homage or contemplate the sexual politics of the thing; they’re going to see the naked boys, and there is plenty of that for them to enjoy. (And some equal opportunity as well; hesitant straight male moviegoers might be interested to know about that Olivia Munn nudity.) As everyone presumably knows by now, the film came to be after Tatum told Soderbergh stories, during production of Haywire, about his brief stint in an all-male revue; the filmmaker thought there might be a movie there, and he was right.
Tatum plays the title character, a “stripper/entrepreneur” who dances (and helps manage) a Tampa male strip show at night; during the day, he’s got his fingers in several other pies, including construction work and auto detailing. But his dream is to design custom furniture—though it must be said that, in the glances we get of his work, it appears that he thinks “designing custom furniture” means finding things and putting a piece of round glass on top of them. Whatever his talent level may be, that’s what he’s saving his sizable stripping income for (there’s a terrific little sequence where we see his process for flattening his crinkled tip money, making it respectable).
On a construction job, he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a good-looking and aimless 19-year-old who he ends up drafting for the show. Reid Carolin’s script juxtaposes “the Kid”’s education and rise with Mike’s growing disenchantment, and the opportunity for normalcy he sees with Adam’s pretty sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Also of note is Joanna (Munn), the psych major/party girl who’s always up for a booty call, but starts to pull away when Mike transfers his crush on the resistant Brooke—and subsequent desire for something more meaningful—to Joanna.
Tatum and Munn share one scene that’s so keenly observed that it’s a little astounding, a post-coital conversation that is awkward and strained without any of the obvious, broad indicators. It’s not that they’re stupid people, or ungraceful—it’s just that the sex is really all they have in common, and this quietly masterful interaction dramatizes that dynamic in a really interesting way. The picture is filled with the sort of quietly naturalistic dialogue scenes that Soderbergh has made into something of a specialty; they are the chatter of everyday conversation, free of the writerly tics and overpolished speech we hear in most movies. Perhaps the best dialogue moment in the film finds Mike put in the position to deliver a big, heartfelt speech, and he doesn’t quite get it done—the words don’t flow, and the harder he tries to put together a monologue he probably spent a good chunk of time rehearsing, the more he stutters and stammers.
That’s a good moment for Tatum, but he’s sturdy throughout the picture: wry, sexy, charming as hell. He sells the character’s likability, but the physicality is far from a given—and I’m not just talking about his abs and ass. His dancing is impressive, and the way he manifests his sexuality in those scenes is really rather remarkable, particularly in a great sequence where Brooke watches him onstage for the first time, and what begin as pro forma cutaway/reaction shots increase in frequency and tempo to become something of a sexual encounter via clever film editing.
Whatever the subtext might be, Soderbergh is also clearly having a lot of fun cinematically with these club sequences, treating them as exercises in pure style, getting laughs with the way he cuts into them, photographing them in long, wide shots, like dance numbers in old musicals. (He also includes an Ecstasy sequence that is one of his moodiest and most impressive achievements in photography and editing.) And he pulls performances from his cast that are solid and unflashy—with the notable exception of Matthew McConaughey, who is flashy personified, and all the more fun for it. Continuing the embracing of his oily inner sleazeball that began with The Lincoln Lawyer and continues in next month’s Killer Joe, McConaughey (who finally, at long last, has a role where it makes sense that he’s never wearing a shirt) is a showy, funny blast. “This is not a joke, this is serious fuckin’ business!” he proclaims, while holding a burning torch, and the key to his ridiculous character is that the actor takes him seriously; his lesson, with Alex, on how to not take off your clothes “like a 12-year-old in a locker room” is a comic highlight, as is his stern, satisfied nod during the kid’s first routine.
Soderbergh boosters (including this one) worried from the ads that Magic Mike might be something of a male Showgirls, but it’s got one thing that movie didn’t have: a vibrantly cheerful sense of humor. The picture is basically a comedy, and it only really falters when it starts to take itself too seriously, with third act complications and conflicts that are woefully predictable, no matter how organically they’re staged by the filmmaker. (We also don’t really get a sense of who the other guys in the company are—and statistically speaking, shouldn’t at least one of them be gay?) Until then, it’s a movie that knows how to have fun, and part of that has to do with location: female strip clubs are grim, depressing places, while women tend to whoop and cheer and have a great time on their “girls nights out.” I’d imagine a lot of them are planning such a night out to see this movie, and they won’t be disappointed. But they’ll also probably notice the fascinating way that the movie treats Tatum and his co-stars the way female actors are so often treated in mainstream cinema: objectified then humanized, with our protagonist put through the paces of heartbreak by a sex-crazed bad egg before landing in the arms of a kind and gentle partner. Magic Mike isn’t a great movie, by any means. But it’s an interesting two-parter: a frothy, fizzy throwaway while it’s going, surprisingly thoughtful and subversive in retrospect.
"Magic Mike" is out tomorrow in wide release.