Well, here’s the long-teased movie I was waiting to reveal until I actually reviewed that I first mentioned in my “I’m Not Dead” post letting everybody know what was happening with the massive power outages on the East Coast. If there’s ever an opening statement about how comfortable I am with my sexuality (and my complete lack of giving a shit about what other people think about me), it’s that I’m not worried about admitting that I saw Magic Mike and that I’m also willing to review it on here. When the power went out, that also meant the AC went out. It was triple digit weather and my sister and I were baking in the house so we decided to go to the only place in the tri-county area with power and air conditioning, the mall. Nicole wanted to see Magic Mike and I was going to see Snow White and the Huntsman, but it wasn’t playing til 11 (they were diverting power to the newer releases), and since I didn’t want to see Brave or Ted, I made the risky decision to go see Magic Mike with my sister. It’s directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, sex lies and videotape), the original king of indie cinema, so I actually thought there was a good chance it would be a good film and I knew it was going to be more than just a “stripper” movie. What I didn’t know was that Magic Mike was going to blow my expectations away with one of the most effective statements on the death of the American Dream and man’s consistent inability to improve itself.
In the heights of the Great Recession of the 2010s, the economy is no one’s friend. “Magic” Mike (Channing Tatum) fancies himself to be an entrepreneur but in reality, he’s another lost soul trying to hustle another few dollars here and there to survive. He works in construction as a roofer (where he meets the young and restless Adam [Alex Pettyfer]), owns a car detail service, manages an event management company, and dreams of one day running his own custom furniture business. However, Mike makes all of his money as a dancer at the all-male Xquisite strip club. He helps the directionless Adam get a job there as well after the 19 years old Adam blows a football scholarship at college and gets fired from the construction company for taking an extra soda for lunch. As Adam is initiated into the world of dancing, it’s all easy money and non-stop parties at first, but it doesn’t take long for Adam’s self-destructive tendencies to start fucking with Mike’s business as well as for Mike to realize that despite bar owner Dallas’ (Dazed and Confused’s Matthew McConaughey) promise of a piece in a bigger club in Miami, he’s being exploited and his dreams will never come true. As a chance friendship with Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) seems to be Mike’s only hope for redemption while Adam begins a drug-fueled descent into oblivion.
I have mixed feelings about Channing Tatum’s performance in what will ultimately be the role that catapults him to stardom (and I suspect will be the moment where people start to take him seriously as an actor). He has a wonderfully expressive face. It’s the sort of face that Fellini would have been proud to cast in one of his role (I can just see him as the bisexual Encolpio in Fellini Satyricon) and as a former male stripper, his dance moves are impeccable. Actually, he’s almost too good of a dancer to be in a low-rent Tampa strip club. However, his vocal delivery of his lines was a little on the awkward side. His face was selling his complex emotions and whenever he was trying to be charming or seductive, he was able to nail that with his voice. However, in the key dramatic moments, his diction and delivery couldn’t keep up with his expressive face. Alex Pettyfer could be another star in the making as I was far more impressed with his take on the much more difficult role of Adam. Originally, you think he’s supposed to be the audience surrogate as we’re introduced to the world of stripping, but it’s quickly apparent (even from the beginning, there are subtle clues) that’s he’s a bit of a punk. Alex Pettyfer gracefully handles the transition from us rooting for Adam to make it at Xquisite to his transformation into one of the primary foils of the film. Shockingly, Matthew McConaughey gives his best performance in years as Dallas. Channeling all of the manic, cocky energy that makes him so unlikeable in bland romcoms, Steven Soderbergh helps McConaughey direct this energy into turning Dallas into a snake-like, oily businessman who exploits the men in his club just as much as the women shoving ones down their G-strings.
Thematically, the movie had a lot of important things, and the shocking thing was how well it said all of them. On the most important level, the film is a commentary on our current economic situation and how the idea of the American Dream and how you can do whatever you want if you work hard enough is complete bullshit. Mike is nearly a perpetual motion machine and he works his ass off. Whether it’s the stripping or his many other businesses, he never stops working, and with $13,000 saved up, he’s in better financial health than most Americans. Yet, it still isn’t enough for him to get a business loan from the bank (that may seem like a spoiler, but the film carries an air of tragic inevitability so I don’t really think so). There’s another scene where Dallas announces that the club in Miami has finally been approved. This should be a massive pay day for everyone working in the club, but that moment marks the start of the film’s tonal shift into heart-wrenching darkness. I tweeted this at Bret Easton Ellis (sadly I didn’t get a response) as he was talking about the film, but the movie also includes a very David Chase-esque statement about how people don’t change. It might appear as if Mike undergoes some growth throughout the film but it’s more a realization of the cycle of disappointment he’s found himself in than any real change in personality. Adam is the ultimate example of this aspect of the film’s message as all of the things we were supposed to find endearing about him earlier in the film are what ultimately destroy him (and nearly destroy everyone around him).
To me though, one of the most interesting points the film tries to make is about modern sexuality and specifically sexual objectification. I honestly think this film should be required viewing for most men because maybe it would inspire a dialogue about the way we objectify women (if they can get past the scene of Joe Manganiello using a penis pump) by showing a film where the men are objectified. There were women hooting and hollering during the showing of this film every time the men took their clothes off (which mirrored the action on screen with the women in the club), and while the film certainly celebrated a certain freedom of sexuality that isn’t on display in the much more sad and pathetic female strip clubs, the film also forced the audience to confront the fact that most of them came to the film to see eye candy and viewed its half-naked male stars as pieces of meat when in fact they are much more than that. That may not seem like that grand of an insight but it was the gender reversal on display when we’re used to those sorts of lessons coming about beautiful women. It’s rarely shown that women objectify men just as much as men objectify women. I’m not sure how many people came away from the theater with that message (and sadly, I’ve heard far too many women complain on Facebook that the film had too much plot and not enough oiled up men), but it was very clear that’s what Steven Soderbergh was trying to accomplish.
The more I think about this film, the more I appreciate it (which is always a good sign), and Steven Soderbergh’s direction and cinematography are another area where the film showed excellence. It’s a major studio picture (Warner Bros.), but it was shot like an indie film. Lots of handheld cameras, intimate close-ups (especially during conversations), and stylistic experiments to try and visually capture the mood of a scene (particularly if drugs have been used). There’s almost a light, cheery air to the film’s visual style for the first half of the film where Soderbergh tries to tease you that this may be a happy film (though the subtext always lends it that air of fatalism), but after a scene during a hurricane where good news that is obviously bad news is announced marks a radical change to the way that Soderbergh shoots the film and tries to capture the atmosphere of Xquisite and the men that work there. There’s also a very naturalistic take to the dialogue. It rarely feels “scripted” and whether there are moments of improvisation or not, nothing anyone said ever felt forced (unless the actor made it sound that way) and you often felt like you stumbled into a conversation being held by two real people. One of the best scenes in the film showcases Soderbergh’s spot-on visual style where the color and lighting constantly shift as Adam and Mike “roll” on ecstasy in a moment that further widens the gap between the two paths the two protagonists are following.
You should see this movie. It’s as simple as that, and if you have any interest in cinematography (as well as the way that the film’s visuals help emphasize the subtext on sexuality inherent to the film), you should see it on the big screen to get the full effect. The film is about taking larger than life figures and making them small again, and I think that could be lost on TVs. Even if you’re a heterosexual male (like myself), you should know that this is more than just a stripping movie. If you couldn’t get that from 1700 words of rambling from me, well, you’ll probably be lost on what this film is trying to accomplish anyways. Magic Mike has to be the most egregious case of misadvertising in the history of films. The studio knew exactly what it would take to get women in the theaters (men taking their clothes off) and only sold that aspect of the film in the adverts. It’s so much more, and you’d be doing a disservice to one of the greatest American filmmakers of the last twenty years if you didn’t at least give Magic Mike a fair shot.
Final Score: A-