Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Catching Up: "Magic Mike"

 3.5 / 5 

Magic Mike feels, impressively, a lot like a 1970s character study about troubled and lonely people, but is marketed as a salacious, flashy 21st century piece of high-concept pabulum.

Here’s the pitch: Matthew McConaughey owns a strip club and Channing Tatum is his stripper.  You can imagine the response this one had in the development rooms – “Gay guys and straight women will love it, which is more than you can say for that female stripper movie with Cher.”

So, that’s the movie they thought they were getting, a crazy, flashy number filled with hard butts and chiseled abs.  Except this movie is to stripper movies what Popeye was to comic-book movies.  It’s an auteur’s film through and through, and fortunately bringing an artistic director’s eye to pulp material works a lot better for Steven Soderbergh than it did for Robert Altman.

Magic Mike is indeed about male strippers, and it has some awfully pretty boys fronting it.  We’re at the point now where Matthew McConaughey has turned into the elder statesman (an odd point to be, it should be noted), but even he gets a very long moment to flash his butt and his pecs

Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer are the handsome young boys – Tatum is the titular character, who thinks he’s doing pretty Alex a favor when he suggests the boy come to work at the club.

But faster than you can say All About Eve, Alex sets his eyes on the prize: Being the lead dancer.  Things get complicated when drugs and a girl come into the picture, but then, things are no doubt always complicated in the lives of men who take their clothes off for money.

It’s would be easy to dismiss Magic Mike as prurient entertainment that turns the tables on the male-dominated movies – after all, men have been hooting and hollering at scantily clad women (serious actresses included) for centuries.

But Soderbergh gets at the grime underneath the polish, and is more interested in the desperation than the ambition.  Despite some (mostly) intentionally campy moments and the surface-level silliness of the whole thing, Magic Mike makes it clear that in this world, there are only two kinds of people: users and the used, and there are a lot more of the latter.  Tatum’s Mike doesn’t understand which kind he is until pretty late in the game, and then he wants to change his fate – he just doesn’t have a clue how.

The acting is top-notch, the people (yes, even the girls) are impressively attractive, and the Tampa, Fla., location is just wonky enough to help make the story work even better: For a lot of these people, Tampa is as close to the promised land of Miami that they are ever going to get, a hard fact that’s just now dawning on them.  They’d give the shirts off their backs to get out of this place – too bad they threw them to the drunk chick in the front row last night.

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