Magic Mike combines the unlikely worlds of genre-hopping auteur Steven Soderbergh and Floridian male strippers, starring the increasingly interesting Channing Tatum. There’s enough scintillating dance numbers and disrobed actors throughout to satisfy female audience expectations, but this surprisingly artistic film has more on its mind than the beefcake-heavy marketing suggests, with its compelling characters and undercurrent of economic urgency landing closer to Boogie Nights than Showgirls.
Magic Mike is loosely based on Channing Tatum’s real-life experiences and observations as a 19-year-old stripper in Tampa, Florida, and penned by his producing partner Reid Carolin. However, the film does not revolve entirely around Tatum, despite what the marketing would have you believe. This is a shared narrative, which follows college dropout Adam (Alex Pettyfer) — who is crashing with his older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), and struggling to find his way — and the charismatic entrepreneur/stripper (or is that stripper/entrepreneur?) Mike (Tatum), who meets Adam on a construction job and takes him under his wing, dubbing him “The Kid”. In Adam’s eyes, Mike has it all — girls, car, money, good times — so he’s willing to tag along for some extra scratch when “Magic” Mike reveals that he performs in the XQuisite Male Dance Revue. There we are introduced to the other members of the “cock-rocking kings of Tampa”, namely Big Dick Richie (True Blood‘s Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (WWE wrestler Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and the greasy emcee/club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who suggestively opens the show with: “The law says that you cannot touch… But I think I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house tonight!” Before long, The Kid is plied with GHB and pushed out on stage to fill in for an overdosed Tarzan, and thus a (stripping) star is born.
Much of the rest of Magic Mike‘s plot developments may seem familiar: Dallas teaches The Kid to dance; Mike has occasional hook-ups with a slumming psychology student, Joanna (Olivia Munn); The Kid spirals out of control, indulging in hard-partying, casual sex and drugs, as the club’s DJ/drug dealer Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) provides him with a stash of pills to sell; Brooke worries about her naïve young brother, and an attraction between her and Mike grows. However cliché some of these story beats seem, Soderbergh has fun with the gender role reversal throughout, and it’s genuinely refreshing to see the sexual objectification flipped here. The terrific cast also make this occasionally predictable story sizzle. Soderbergh brings the best out in Tatum; no one doubted that the Step Up star could pull-off the obligatory gyrating hip-hop dance moves, but he is effortlessly charming and relaxed as Mike, delivering his best performance yet. [Following the success of this and 21 Jump Street (also excellent), I’d hazard a guess that Tatum will no longer be as underrated as he has been in the past]. Pettyfer also impresses with perhaps the most difficult role in the film, giving Adam a real vulnerability, as does relative newcomer Horn, who convincingly plays Brooke as the film’s wry, grounded voice of reason. Of course, the most buzzed performance in Magic Mike is McConaughey’s sleazy, self-worshipping and manipulative showman Dallas, who steals every scene. I’m absolutely loving the creative resurgence of McConaughey, and he gives an awards-worthy turn here in a role he was born to play.
As always, Soderbergh shoots (under his cinematographer alias of Peter Andrews) and edits (as Mary Ann Bernard) himself, giving the film a loose, naturalistic feel throughout. Aside from a couple of heavily-stylized, ecstasy-fueled party sequences (which are expertly shot), Magic Mike is a well-crafted but straight-forward affair stylistically — Tampa’s hazy yellow exteriors suggest an unappealing permanent-hangover, the dialogue often comes across as natural and improvised, and the raunchy dance numbers deliver exactly what the target audience wants (from “It’s Raining Men”, to July 4th military outfits, to dub-step-soundtracked sliding and thrusting). Unfortunately Soderbergh seems to lose interest in Horn and Tatum’s off-centre love story in favour of some of the film’s beautifully bleak visuals and exciting supporting characters, which is a shame as the two have great chemistry together and their relationship feels a little truncated.
If Soderbergh has one overarching theme in his diverse, prolific work — from Traffic to The Girlfriend Experience; the Ocean’s trilogy to Che — it is his constant questioning of American capitalism, and he is extremely gifted at wrapping this into slick, commercial packages. This film is no exception, as money drives everything. One of the key scenes has Mike, dressed in a suit and spectacles, attempting to secure a small business loan from a flustered female banker (Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt), and being denied his dream of making custom furniture. Another concerns Mike and Dallas’ future business venture in Miami, and you hear the word “equity” a lot more than you might expect in a movie about strippers.
While Magic Mike might not have the scope of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Boogie Nights, it is arguably the best American film about selling sex since then. Soderbergh once again manages to bring his indie aesthetic and considerable filmmaking chops to mainstream material, and the result is a highly enjoyable, artfully crafted and thematically resonant film with tremendous performances, great humour and real heart (this is probably the most romantic effort to date from notoriously cold director). The seemingly disparate Soderbergh and Tatum bring out the best in each other in Magic Mike, which manages to walk a fine line between guilty pleasure escapism and a realistic portrayal of people hustling in a harsh economy better than you might expect, making it one of this year’s best surprises.
Watch the trailer for Magic Mike below.