Friday, August 03, 2012

Film Review: Magic Mike (2012)

This picture is the end result of a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to find a decent image from the film that did not feature a shirtless Channing Tatum.
Steven Soderbergh has always been a mercurial talent, able to move smoothly from making mainstream films with big name stars to off-kilter experimental films without losing step, all the while maintaining his own style and voice on every project. Within the last twelve months alone, he has made a bleakly realistic disaster movie and a minimalist action thriller, both of which were vastly different in scope, but which were unmistakeably his own. He even found time to squeeze in some second-unit work on one of the most successful films of the year. Even given how varied his workload has been, it says something that Soderbergh's latest film, set amongst the lives of male strippers in Florida, is probably the strangest prospect of them all.

Mike (Channing Tatum) is a self-described entrepreneur and manager of several small businesses. He details cars, does roofing jobs, and three nights a week he works as a stripper at a club in Tampa. Through his various ventures, Mike has managed to save a decent amount of cash which he hopes to one day put towards establishing his own business designing and building custom furniture, though the broader problems with the economy mean that he is stuck reshingling and disrobing until the bank will give him a decent loan. But apart from that, things are going pretty well in Mike's world; he's got cash, women and the prospect of more of the same once the club he works at makes the move to Miami at the end of the summer. Things begin to change when Mike meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a nineteen year old who floats from job to job, all the while sleeping on his sister's couch. Mike introduces Adam, a.k.a. The Kid, to the club and stripping, and the two become fast friends. It isn't long, though, before cracks start to appear in the surface, and Mike starts to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there isn't something more to life than taking off your clothes and dry-humping strangers.

When describing Magic Mike as a strange prospect, it is less to do with the plot, which is pretty standard fare even if the setting is a little outside of the norm, than with the people involved. It just seems incredibly strange to see Oscar and Palme D'or-winning arthouse legend Steven Soderbergh's name in the credits for a fairly riotous comedy set in the world of male stripping. Whilst there is undeniably a disconnect between those two in the abstract - and as varied as his work is there is still a pretty big difference between the very concept of Magic Mike and Solaris, for example - once you move beyond the idea of the movie, the work itself makes a great deal more sense in the context of its director's work.

The standard line on Soderbergh's career is that he takes studio jobs in order to fund his more personal films, a strategy that has often been described as a variation on "one for them, one for me". Though this dichotomy is fairly reductive since all of his films maintain a balance between traditional narratives and a less conventional sensibility,  it is true that most of his films lean heavily to one side or the other. Magic Mike is one of the rare Soderbergh films which manages to create and maintain a satisfying mix of his crowd pleasing tendencies and his intellectual inquisitiveness without letting one envelope the other.

This balance is most evident in the way in which Soderbergh and his writer, Reid Carolin, approach the world of male stripping. On the one hand, they fully acknowledge how hilariously sleazy and ridiculous it can be, and there is a real sense of fun to both the dance sequences, which are dynamic and expertly choreographed, and in the scenes of the strippers hanging out and talking just like men on any job. On the other, there is the film's focus on the specifics of their lifestyle, which it explores through the training of Adam and his discovery of all the minutiae that goes into preparing for a routine, or learning how to effectively work a crowd. They even go so far as to include little moments like Mike flattening out the scrunched up dollar bills he received the previous evening in order to make them more presentable, a nice little detail that offers an insight into the particulars of Mike's everyday life once he steps off stage. The film was at least partly based on Channing Tatum's own experiences as a male stripper before he became an actor, so the sense of realism and of being taken behind the curtain no doubt comes from his knowledge and experience in that regard.

Both these aspects - the ridiculous and the mundane - are perfectly embodied by the character of Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner of the club in which much of the action takes place. On one level, Dallas is a broad caricature who spouts meaningless aphorisms as if they are profound bon mots whilst either shirtless or, in one of the film's funniest moments, wearing some very short shorts, and it's hard not to laugh at McConaughey's deliberately outrageous performance. At the same time, Dallas is also a shrewd, manipulative businessman who knows how to get what he wants and will end long-standing relationships if they are no longer profitable. He's a bizarre figure, but he knows the world that he inhabits and knows how to work it to his advantage.

The key question of the film, from a character point of view, is whether or not Mike is meant to be part of Dallas' world or not. Whilst much of the story focuses on the club and Mike's budding friendship with Adam, there is a semi-romantic subplot in which Mike starts to develop feelings for Adam's sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). It's a relatively under-played part of the film, and is more connected to the overall idea of Mike not being sure whether he wants to go after what he wants or to stick with what he has, but it remains one of the few real mis-steps since Tatum and Horn are never really that interesting as a potential couple. Again, this is because the film itself is not terribly interested in the relationship, but it does mean that it slows down markedly whenever they are on screen together.

What interest exists in that particular pairing, and there is at least some which comes through in the film's final moments, comes from Channing Tatum, who proves surprisingly adept at both the comedic and dramatic requirements of the role. Not that much is asked of him given the material, but that shouldn't detract from the fact that he gives a funny, likable performance that anchors a film which could very easily have been a much drier exercise, akin to Soderbergh's earlier film, The Girlfriend Experience, to which Magic Mike feels like a brasher, flashier companion piece. The same is also true of Alex Pettyfer, who is very charismatic as Adam, and with Tatum creates a friendship that seems real, which in turn makes the eventual third-act testing of said friendship feel like it actual means something (within the admittedly gaudy context of a male stripper comedy).

Soderbergh has created an entertaining yet intelligent film about a subject that could be completely laughable. Aided by three terrific performances from Tatum, Pettyfer and McConaughey, he tells a story that is a lot of fun and has plenty of laughs, but which also manages to concern itself with the particulars of its setting, as well as offer some insight into how the economy affects the lives of people just trying to make a living any way they can. It sits comfortably alongside films like Boogie Nights and American Gigolo, though it doesn't have the bravado of the former or the spiritual heft of the latter. After all, for all of its admirable qualities, at heart it's still the Channing Tatum Stripper Movie.

Grade: B+