Editor’s Note: Magic Mike opens for wide release on 6/29/2012. For an alternate take on Magic Mike, check out Mel Valentin’s review here
Like the best of Steven Soderbergh, Magic Mike takes the simplest elements and breathes complexity into every stray corner. Quite infamously, this is the “Channing Tatum Male Stripper Movie,” a label as reductive as the hoots and hollers bellowed by various female audience members at the screening I attended. The label has, in honesty, been goaded on by the film’s marketing campaign, which has put the film in the context of a Chippendale-inspired, strawberry daiquiri-scented night out with the girls. Such winking pandering is likely fine with Soderbergh, a filmmaker who loves to upend expectations, and does so again here, taking that simplistic label – and a seemingly conventional story of redemption – and transforming it into a film that is at once incisively cool and infectiously warm.
Yes, a Soderbergh film…warm. Magic Mike is about as warm as we’ll ever get from this master of cold experiments like Bubble and Full Frontal, or expansive epics of grave importance like Traffic and Contagion. There is plenty of that cold gaze here, though it is reserved for the presumably spicy male strip revue sequences, which Soderbergh dissects with his camera. The men are on display, but more for the audience’s observation than for its entertainment.
There is plenty of that cold gaze here, though it is reserved for the presumably spicy male strip revue sequences, which Soderbergh dissects with his camera.
The titular character, played by Tatum in the best performance of his still-young career, is “magic” indeed – his moves blow the lid off the small Tampa nightclub where he struts his stuff nightly. The club is owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who also functions as a coach/mentor/pseudo-pimp/oily father figure for his small troupe of rippling, wiggling adult entertainers. Mike is the Golden Boy, the centerpiece of each night’s show and the most dynamic and committed member of the “team.” His commitment is born out of the desire to “break free,” that standard movie character goal that stands for legitimacy in the real world, where success isn’t strictly defined by the number of dollar bills shoved in one’s g-string. For Mike, “breaking free” is starting his own custom furniture business, a venture for which he has been saving for six years. He also works at a construction site…and as an auto detailer. He is a renaissance man of grunts and humps – enterprising, yes, but with his eye on an ultimate prize that always seems just out of reach.
Mike’s newest project is Adam (Alex Pettyfer), an aimless 19-year-old with just the right blend of good looks and naiveté to be thrown to the wolves – or cougars, I guess – as the newbie at the strip club. Adam lives with his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), whose maturity is so natural and unassuming she acts as Adam’s live-in mother figure. The film follows these characters through the summer that will define the ultimate path their lives will take. Mike nurtures Adam through the seemingly effortless, carefree lifestyle of the swinging male stripper while toiling away at his personal dream. In the process, he watches Adam become a sort-of stripper Frankenstein and realizes that no manner of confidence and suave can achieve that goal of “breaking free” when the world views you only as an object. He also develops a surprisingly innocent rapport with Brooke, who has his number – and who, unlike virtually every other female-as-moral-compass role in the past decade, doesn’t let herself succumb to the charms of the dark side. This screenplay, by first-time writer Reid Carolin, is interesting in the way it allows to identify with and focus from three distinct points of view. Mike is our natural guide through the story, but at varying intervals, Adam takes center stage, and we identify with his wide-eyed entry into this crazy new world. Other times we focus from Brooke’s perspective, sharing in her judgmental stare as she watches the men in her life carouse on stage for cash. This triangulation is surprisingly effective, lending the story a multi-perspective stream-of-consciousness vibe and tripling the power when these characters reach their arcs.
Mike is our natural guide through the story, but at varying intervals, Adam takes center stage, and we identify with his wide-eyed entry into this crazy new world. Other times we focus from Brooke’s perspective, sharing in her judgmental stare as she watches the men in her life carouse on stage for cash.
On its face, this material shouldn’t work. The narrative is not entirely unique, charting a path from the perceived fun of this freewheeling, pseudo-hedonistic lifestyle to shedding light on the dangers and plumbing the depths of open objectification. The redemptive female and the savior of true love is one of the oldest clichés in storytelling history, and strains of heartbreak that stem from it are not far removed from a Lifetime Movie of the Week. Soderbergh, however, transforms the material with his style, which places the story in a tonal context that is entirely unique. The director’s trademark voyeuristic gaze, generally employed as a method of prescriptive analysis, functions here as an invitation into the world of these characters, each one distinctively fascinating and compulsively watchable. Rather than Soderbergh’s style keeping us at arm’s length, it draws us in with a verite-style intimacy.
He also coaxes brilliant performances across the board, getting career-best work from an Oscar-worthy Tatum (no lie), a big, brash, rollicking supporting turn from McConaughey, and a star-making turn from Horn, whose assuredness with this material, among this cast, is astonishing. She is our consciousness, Mike is our hero, and Soderbergh is pure magic.
[notification type=”star”]86/100 ~ GREAT. Soderbergh does it again with Magic Mike, which upends all expectations and delivers one of the absolute best movie experiences of the year. [/notification]