Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Steven Soderbergh is a true maestro. In addition to directing the likes of Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, and The Limey, he often serves as their cinematographer (under the name Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard), wielding a control unmatched among his fellow filmmakers. The projects on which he wears all three hats display the mark of utmost care where little within his control is accidental.
Such command continues with Magic Mike, an otherwise throwaway story of male strippers given legitimacy by his good name. The bulk of the film’s box office will certainly come from those flocking to the film for the bare sculpted chests of its dashing leading men. For that reason, many will dismiss the film.
The story goes that, on the set of Haywire, Channing Tatum entertained the cast and crew with (supposedly) hilarious anecdotes of his early days in Hollywood when he stripped to pay the bills. Soderbergh saw the potential for a film and, with the help of screenwriter Reid Carolin, made it happen. The fleshed-out version features Tatum as the titular main attraction of Tampa’s Xquisite dance club. Working construction by day, he befriends the hapless Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and, seeing some potential in him, takes “The Kid” under his wing. With help from Mike and the club’s owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), Adam joins the crew of strippers and quickly embraces their party lifestyle.
Yes, the end.
Oh sure, other things happen, but as far as story arc, character development, or dramatic tension goes, that’s it. What’s left is a series of events devoid of depth but bursting with excitement, a parable of emptiness that’s a perfect compliment to the dead-ends of stripping. Would-be conflicts and desires that typically drive films are presented so subtly and pursued with such emotionlessness that they become ephemeral.
As such, Magic Mike is essentially a film about nothing, full of comedy and energy, but little more. With Soderbergh in full three-headed monster mode, the ambitious approach must be intentional, though at times the inability to invest in the film’s static characters makes for a trying experience.
The key is that Magic Mike is too damn fun to fail. The women who frequent Xquisite don’t exactly go there to be bored. The routines are raucous parties and the dance moves, especially Tatum’s, are extraordinary. (His controlled liquid twisting to Ginuwine’s “Pony,” an inspired musical choice, is especially good.) Stunning in their natural form, the stage performances don’t require Soderbergh’s typical visual flairs to liven them up. Shot crisp and straightforward, these lighthearted sequences fully embrace the ridiculousness of stripping, the sorts of characters the industry employs, and the lifestyle it encourages. The routines are insanely entertaining and nothing more. Once they end, they cease to mean anything to us or the performers, but in that moment, the supreme thrill they elicit is all that matters.
Off stage, the fun continues. Tatum proves a strong leading man, full of self-deprecating charm and quick to point out the surface import of his nighttime profession. His loose, improvisational manner serves the film well and challenges his co-stars to keep up. Though I’d previously thought that only Michael Mann (who killed him off in less than two minutes of Public Enemies) knew how to properly use the guy, 2012 is firmly Tatum’s year. His turns in the likes of Stop-Loss and Dear John nearly made me swear off movies entirely, but after quality work in Haywire and 21 Jump Street, I’m starting to take him seriously. Perhaps I need to see The Vow, his other film from this year, after all.
Stealing each scene, however, is McConaughey, likewise having quite the year with this and Bernie. His Dallas may very well be Wooderson, his Dazed and Confused character, 20-odd years older and transplanted to Tampa. (Frequent inclusion of the line, “All right all right all right,” is surely no accident.) McConnahey fully commits to the role of Xquisite’s ringleader, and his outrageous antics and facial expressions provide the film’s most hilarious moments.
Despite all the laughs and eye candy, the combination of which will suffice for many viewers, the sense that Magic Mike narratively adds up to little is a major obstacle. Soderbergh’s ability to turn Tatum’s between-take stripper stories into a meditation on unfulfillment is remarkable, but also frustrating. The pervading nothingness limits the film, which often feels like an enjoyable yet repetitive waste of time. The more I process the film and fully appreciate the intricacies of Soderbergh’s achievement, however, the more impressive it becomes.
Rated R for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use.