Mainstream films about strippers are often surprisingly anodyne. Many a poor male must have been disappointed in Gypsy (1962) when it first hit the cinemas, while The Full Monty (1997) could cheerfully be described as a family film. There are sleazier variations, such as Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995), but it has to be admitted that this sub-genre is usually more of a tease than the performance itself.
It was brave of Steven Soderbergh to make a film about male strippers, knowing the potential to disappoint was so vast. Almost certainly the film will not be titillating enough to please a low-brow audience, and too inherently vulgar to attract the high-brows. It also goes without saying that a lot of beefy blokes will be repelled by the idea of watching other blokes get their gear off on stage.
Oddly enough, one of the criticisms I’ve read of Magic Mike is that it skirts the issue of homosexuality. Despite constant references to the male member, there are none on display in this story. Mike and his colleagues do a lot of slapping and hugging, but their sexual predilections are unambiguous.
Sexual preferences aside, Soderbergh has given us a lead character who is ambiguous in many ways, even to himself. Channing Tatum’s Mike is the star turn in an all-make revue in Tampa, Florida – a town with a depressing resemblance to Surfers’ Paradise. Handsome and athletic, he looks made for the part, but harbours a very different self-perception.
Mike considers the erotic dancing to be only a sideline, albeit a lucrative one. He does part-time detailing on housing sites, and ultimately sees himself as an entrepreneur, with a line in custom-made furniture made from debris thrown up by Florida’s hurricanes. He would be happy to sit around and build things all day, if only he could make it pay.
On site one morning, he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old drop-out, trying to make a dollar by pretending he knows something about roofing. Adam is a textbook example of an aimless waster, who freeloads off his sister, Brooke, (Cody Horn), a medical assistant.
Mike introduces Adam to his night-time job, at a club run by Dallas, a larger-than-life redneck who cares only about making money. This is a role that completelty breaks the mould for Matthew McConaughey, who seemed forver destined to play the love interest in an endless stream of romantic comedies. Not any more. Here he is a foul-mouthed, strutting, preening, strip of sweaty muscle – all testosterone and no finer feelings. It’s a dazzling transformation, and a big improvement.
All the sensitivities belong to Mike. He promises Brooke he will look after her little brother, but Adam proves to be more trouble than he’d anticipated. As his young protégé plunges ever more deeply into the world of sex and drugs, Mike feels a growing estrangement from that life.
Although Mike could get all the bimbos he wanted, he is attracted to brainy girls, such as the psychology major, Joanna (Olivia Munn). His fatal attraction is Brooke, who is repulsed by the strippers’ lifestyle. When Mike tells Brooke: “I’m not my lifestyle!”, she retorts that he doesn’t know who or what he is.
When she asks in what way is he an entrepreneur (pronounced correctly), he responds by saying: “That’s entre-prey-noo-er! It’s French.”
In little touches like this, Reid Carolin’s very good script tells us a lot about the complexities of a character gnawed at by a fear of his own shallowness and lack of education. Mike may look like a boy bimbo, but he wants everyone to know he has the soul of an artist.
Although he seems to make a prodigious number of movies, both as director and producer, Steven Soderbergh is an impressive performer. No matter how diverse his subjects, he has an ear for a script that is rare in today’s cinema, and an instinctive feel for a shot.
Soderbergh makes Mike an entirely credible character. It never seems far-fetched that a successful stripper should want to do something more meaningful. Neither does it seem unlikely that he could be attracted to a skinny blonde like Brooke, when there is a nightly audience full of drooling, sex-crazed females. Brooke represents the road to reality. She is the antithesis of her little brother, who is hastening to his own perdition.
If the tortuous psychology of Magic Mike is not a sufficient reason to see this film, one could always go along for the voyeuristic thrills of the dance routines. There are plenty of opportunities to watch a troop of muscle-bound hunks parading around on stage, or groping the drunken good-time girls in the front-row. It’s probably more fun on screen than in real life. In Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert, when Silivia Pinal’s Devil finally lures the saint off his pedastle she takes him to a discotheque. I’ve always thought of this as a highly convincing vision of Hell.
Magic Mike, USA, rated MA, 110 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 04, 2012