Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Reid Carolin
Starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McCounaghey, Alex Pettyfer, Joe Mangianello, Matt Bomer, Olivia Munn, Cody Horn
Rated R for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use
Running Time of 110 Minutes
Nobody would blame you for not taking a movie about male strippers seriously. It’s a silly, fluffy, potentially exploitative concept that could lead to a wealth of shlock. Yet when you hear that Steven Soderbergh has made a film about male strippers, perhaps you do begin to take it a little bit seriously. After all, the world of male strippers is not one that has often been depicted in films with any sort of legitimacy or for an extended period for that matter, and it holds a sort of allure that could make for an exciting picture. Magic Mike, based on conversations with Channing Tatum about his real time as a stripper, is in many ways a combination of the best and worst notions of what a male stripper movie could be, and it ultimately crumbles underneath its own ambitions.
Soderbergh is a fascinating filmmaker with a career filled with minor obsessions. His filmography over the last decade and a half is riddled with versatile films that attempt to examine very specific and sometimes esoteric subjects. Films like The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble, and Che are all on the obscure side of filmmaking, but they show an attention to detail and craft that few other filmmakers would bring to them. Soderbergh is also a terrific pop filmmaker. In works like Ocean’s Eleven and this year’s Haywire he makes fun, stylish pictures that brim with thoughtfulness and joy. In many ways, Magic Mike strikes me as his attempt to marry his two modes together. On the surface, it is clear that he is having a blast making this film. The dance numbers are filled with great energy and are well shot and choreographed, and the cast is more than game. There are hilarious moments and some wit, and a classic bit of cinematic framing involving a penis pump. Although many talented actors are given shockingly thin roles in the film (Matt Bomer and Joe Mangianello in particular are sadly wasted), they have no qualms about strutting their stuff and showing off their insane physiques. In this regard the film is a bit goofy, a bit sexy, and a lot of fun.
It is through Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey that the film works the best. Both are bundles of raw charisma and energy and give compelling performances. McConaughey is hilarious and practically devilish. Tatum in particular shows off his terrific dance moves and proves that with the right role (such as in this year’s 21 Jump Street) he can work wonders. Unfortunately, the film begins to betray its characters in an effort to become more serious-minded. Scripted by newcomer Reid Carolin (Tatum’s producing partner), the film attempts to delve into the ramifications and morality of being a male stripper. Ensconced with a heavy sense of the current economic crisis, the film tries to paint a portrait of the classic American Dream. In this regard, the film becomes quite familiar, as we follow a character frequently referred to as The Kid (a bland Alex Pettyfer) who idolizes Mike and wants to be his “best friend.” The film attempts to draw parallels between The Kid and Mike, showing the differing points of the career of a male stripper.
There is certainly merit to this approach. Greed, sex, and ambition are all classic cinematic themes and worth exploring, especially in tandem. None of this is handled well, though, as the motivations of characters become muddled, plot threads dangle, and the evolution and arcs of characters are rushed. If we are to explore how the job of a male stripper can potentially ruin a man, there needs to be weight and gravitas. None of this comes across, and Soderbergh seems to lack conviction. I had a difficult time buying the film’s descent into darkness as it is both not handled seriously enough and without thorough exploration. It seems rushed and tacked on, an unfortunate attempt to string together the moments of dancing and thrusting. Also tacked on is a romance with the lovely Cody Horn that comes to a goofy conclusion. In all of this the film loses its way. Is the audience supposed to reflect back upon themselves and feel ashamed at starting at the beautiful dancing men because the career is a scandalous and dangerous one? Are we supposed to pity these men because they have dug themselves into moral holes? Or perhaps are we just supposed to have a good time. Any of these would have been worthy, but in an effort to achieve all of them none of them are explored to their fullest potential.
Perhaps you may say that nobody should go in to the male stripper movie with a critical eye, as it is not intended to be taken seriously. It is clear from this film, though, that Soderbergh and co have taken it very seriously. As a bit of fluff it almost works. The screaming (literally) women in my theatre are proof enough of that. The bachelorette party-like atmosphere was palpable. As a potentially compelling insight into the career of legitimate male strippers, though, I found that it absolutely failed. Dull, muddled, and without conviction, we are left hoping for another of Tatum’s terrific solos instead of caring or clinging to the drama. Soderbergh can do better.