It’s been a rough couple of years for Steven Soderbergh, and an even harder few for fans of Steven Soderbergh. Once a darling of the American indie scene, his career has slipped since the critical success of Traffic and the financial success of Ocean’s Eleven in the early 2000s. Solaris, The Good German and Che were all minor disasters, while the Ocean’s sequels and The Informant! didn’t live up to promises. Earlier this year he delivered Haywire, perhaps the most misjudged and frankly boring film of his career.
Thankfully Magic Mike is here to save the day. Sort of. Certainly on the fluffier side of the director’s work, it wades in far shallower waters than Sex, Lies, and Videotape. But well crafted and to the point, and with enough man candy to make it a box office smash amongst female and gay male audiences, Magic Mike is probably the director’s most notable film in 10 years. That’s not necessarily saying a lot, but still.
Based on his own experiences as a male stripper, Channing Tatum plays ‘Magic’ Mike, a talented, crowd-pleasing ladies’ club performer with aspirations to “greater things”. While set on his goals, he is far from selfish, and soon takes stripping ingénue Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing. Adam takes on the role of the inexperienced newcomer for the sake of the audience (think Ariadne in Inception), and the film’s focus on his rise and fall is an unfortunate distraction from the central drama. However, it is through their friendship that Mike meets Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn), whose relative resistance to Mike’s charms becomes as big an obsession for him as his entrepreneurial dreams.
Tatum gives it his best as Mike, carrying the character’s internal dilemmas, though never quite finding the right amount of heartbreak when things don’t go his way. But his physical performance is eyebrow-raisingly athletic, with some truly Olympian talent on display during his dance numbers, and not a body double in sight. The rest of the stripper team provide ample back-up, though characterisation-wise they are little more than “the hairy one” and “the one who worries his penis isn’t big enough”, etc.
As the troupe’s leader and owner of the establishment, Dallas, Matthew McConaughey gives another of his recent badboy turns, as sex and money-obsessed as Killer Joe, though sans menace. One of the film’s biggest successes is how it captures Dallas’s ego, not just through McConaughey’s performance, but through his costumes (in training he dresses like a gay aerobics instructor like he’s making it be in style) and even lighting (a Fourth of July performance makes an American flag out of Dallas’s face – he is literally the American dream).
There’s very little to dislike in Magic Mike, but there’s not much to love either (unless you love looking at oily men, in which case there’s something). Mike is almost too much of a Mr Nice Guy for there to ever be much concern for him. The business he wishes to set up, selling furniture made from hurricane debris, is problematic too. The film seems to be uncertain as to whether or not his furniture is supposed to be any good (characters in the film seem to differ on it), so the audience gets no clear cues to see Mike as a tortured artist or deluded daydreamer.
The dialogue is for the most part very run of the mill, and the awkward conversations between Mike and Brooke are often just that; awkward. But the script has a flavour for man-banter, and the scenes between Mike and Adam, Dallas and the other strippers crackle at times. Alas, the best line of the film comes at the end of Mike and Adam’s first night of partying – the film never quite reaches that level again.
Shot in sunbathed yellows, Magic Mike is a pretty film about very pretty people. Those pretty people don’t do very much, but the film keeps the attention until it all begins to drag in the final 20 (predictable) minutes, when its bountiful energy runs out.
For the most part it is an entertaining feature. Its major fault is its moralising; for all his talents Mike clearly sees stripping as a lesser profession, and the film seems eager not to judge those who do it, but those who want to it until they’re too old to do it anymore.
The film never quite tackles the issues behind the female gaze; why women want to look at men the way men traditionally look at women. In some ways, the queues outside cinemas to see Magic Mike say more about the matter than the film does itself.