By Don Simpson | June 28, 2012
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Olivia Munn, James Martin Kelly, Cody Horn, Reid Carolin, George A. Sack Jr., Micaela Johnson, Denise Vasi, Camryn Grimes, Kate Easton, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash, Gabriel Iglesias
I have to admit, if Steven Soderbergh did not direct Magic Mike I would have never wanted to watch it, let alone review it. The nauseating trailers definitely made me second guess my decision (as did the relentless taunting and mockery of my fellow Smells Like Screen Spirit scribes), but I was convinced that Soderbergh knew what he was doing. Soderbergh does not make mindless Hollywood fluff, but how could he make Magic Mike into something intelligent? A gender-reversed bookend to The Girlfriend Experience, perhaps? I swallowed a load of salty — ahem — pride and hoped for the best possible scenario: a smart, message-driven film that would turn the tables on cinematic objectification and maybe even be worthy of inclusion in gender studies curriculum.
The titular [cockular?] Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is the lead attraction of the Cock-Rocking Kings of Tampa. In an effort to raise enough capital to open his own custom furniture business (he is a self-proclaimed entrepreneur), Mike also does custom detailing and works various construction jobs. It is on a construction site that Mike meets a 19-year-old college dropout, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who is desperately trying to make enough cash to get out of his oh-so-serious sister Brooke’s (Cody Horn) drab apartment.
By pure happenstance they meet again, this time Mike brings Adam to Club Xquisite, an all-male revue run with fantastic bravado by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). At first, Dallas agrees to hire Adam to do odd jobs around the club; but it is not long until Adam fatefully appears on stage as “The Kid.” It becomes increasingly evident that Adam represents Mike’s past. (In a strange sort of way, Magic Mike takes on an A Christmas Carol-esque narrative path, except that this film is set in Tampa in the summertime — so, does that make Scrooge a financially-struggling stripper who has still found a way to live in excess, albeit quite unhappily?) Like an apparition from Mike’s past, young Adam reminds Mike what his life was like before it started spiralling downward; and it is by spending time with Adam that Mike discovers an option to improve his life. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
Dallas has offered Mike a slice of equity in a beachfront club in Miami that promises to be a much bigger version of Club Xquisite, which basically means that Mike’s current lifestyle will soon be jacked-up on steroids. But as Mike observes Adam’s downward spiral into the seedy world of perpetual parties, drugs, sex and easy money; Mike recognizes the safety and security of Brooke, a woman who works a respectable day job and lives an extremely bland existence. I bet Brooke has a great credit score and can secure a much needed bank loan to fund Mike’s entrepreneurial endeavors. That’s right, Brooke can save Mike from the seedy life of a stripper!
So, on one level, Magic Mike works as a portrait of working-class struggles; people who are striving for [financial] success and have learned how to [temporarily] live in gross extravagance by way of the few options that are currently available to them. This is a world in while women represent security, while men aimlessly flounder around until they recognize the strength and maturity of the women around them. In other words, women allow men to realize their dreams and true potential. Without the guidance of women, men waste their money; they buy big ass SUVs and invest in get-rich-quick schemes (such as male strip clubs and drug deals).
But relationships in Soderbergh’s hyper-real universe are not just another business transaction. Relationships are just as much about sexual attraction. Against her better judgment, Brooke is attracted to Mike because he represents a sexier and more honest alternative to her boyfriend (Reid Carolin); just as it is Brooke’s physical beauty that first catches Mike’s attention. Playing with the concepts of observation and perception, Soderbergh’s film is about watching people and watching people watch other people as well as what the voyeurs learn about the people that they watch. The most obvious example is when Brooke visits Club Xquisite. She stands in the back of the club, remaining totally detached as an observer, as if this is merely a sociological experiment for her. (We are reminded several times that Mike’s fuck-buddy, Joanna [Olivia Munn], first visited Club Xquisite as part of an academic research project.) We observe Brooke as she reacts to the hordes of women swooning over Mike. It is clearly the way that the women are watching and reacting to Mike that interests Brooke, not his performance. Brooke explains to Mike later that by observing this particular moment she gets what he does and why he does it. (Not one for expository dialogue, Soderbergh refrains from having Brooke lecture us on her findings.)
The narrative comes to a grinding halt any time the camera enters Club Xquisite — which functions as a total escape from reality for its entertainers and their audience. The stage presentations are choreographed like scenes from classic Hollywood musicals. Everything is hilariously over-the-top from the stage design to the lighting and the props, not to mention the cartoonishly hammy ringleader, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey is nothing short of brilliant in his cranked-up-to-11 supporting role). Visually, this topsy-turvy carnival turns 100-plus years of the objectification of women in cinema on its head. Soderbergh presents us with the Cock-Rocking Kings, men with impeccable pecs and 12-pack abs, flaunting their bulging banana hammocks and taut bare buttocks (which garner a fair share of close-ups and zoom-ins) for the audience to ogle and fantasize about. But as the audience wipes the drool off their chins, they realize that Soderbergh has just tricked them into consuming an overtly-intelligent film about socio-economics and gender issues. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but one that is sugar-coated with scantily clad sexy people.