Jul 12, 2012

Magic Mike

I have a newfound respect for Channing Tatum, hero, producer and inspiration of this uneven film by Steven Soderbergh. He is a charming, confident actor and he can bust a move (who knew?). The story goes that he used to be a male stripper and this film is based on his experiences. Good for him.
He is chiseled to perfection and gorgeous to look at: All-American Beefcake Extraordinaire. He could be the offspring of Tommy Lee Jones. He reminds one of actors like John Wayne, or even Gary Cooper. A real guy. A man's man. Not a hipster wallflower, this one. In my fantasies, I see him as a Marine, or an officer in the Yankee Army, who comes in uniform to sweep me (Scarlett O'Hara with glasses and no Tara) off my feet. American movies today need intelligent, sensitive, sensible beefcake like him. We've had a shortage of his kind for years. He is eminently likable, he has personality, unlike some of the other beefcakes Hollywood tries to foist up on us, such as Taylor Lautner or Taylor Kitsch, good examples of pumped up human nothingness.
Magic Mike belongs to a hallowed category of American working class stiff movies like Urban Cowboy, Saturday Night Fever, and An Officer And A Gentleman. It is no coincidence that Soderbergh uses the Warner Brothers logo from 1972 to 1984, the period when some of the aforementioned movies were made. Like these films, Magic Mike is about what American people have to do to make a decent living. Except in this case, the working class heroes are male strippers in Tampa, Florida. This, of course, is a big exception.
Those expecting something darker, a jaundiced view of American entrepreneurship along the lines of Boogie Nights (working stiffs, no pun intended, in the American porn industry), will find Magic Mike a much more conventional film, a straight-laced morality tale, not about sex, but about work ethic. I'm not sure if it intends to be radical by delivering so conventional a story (feebly written by Reid Carolin), but Magic Mike somehow misses the opportunity to make a stronger statement about a number of interesting themes.
It makes much of the guys' need for money. These are people who earn each and every dollar bill they make. Money comes to them in fistfuls, a dollar or five bucks at a time, depending on pelvic thrust. They happen to live in Florida, world capital of financial hubris. For all the hard work Mike does, (he has more than one job and builds furniture), he lives in a pretty nice house steps away from the beach. Still, he can't get a loan to start the business he is passionate about, which has nothing to do with stripping. His is the story of achievement through honesty and hard work, not easy money and deception.
The other salient topic is the selling of sex, in this case, male to female. There is one scene where the love interest (played by nonentity Cody Horn) watches Mike's routine at the club. Like all of us in the audience (comprised mostly, the night I saw it, of excited young females), she is spellbound by his physical glory, his sexiness and his talent as a stripper (these men work hard to put on a show). There is sexual longing in her gaze, but there is also disgust. How can these guys stoop so low?
We are used to seeing women perform in strip clubs in real life, films, and cable TV, and nobody finds this uncomfortable, even though the female version of stripping is by now almost completely devoid of romance, fantasy or narrative, and it has become mostly hardcore smut. But show dudes pleasing women's libidos by stripping and undulating, and a frisson of discomfort, embarrassment and thoughts of homoeroticism rise to the surface. In real life, how many male stripper clubs exist today in comparison to "gentlemen's clubs"? Must be one in thousands. This is a disparity that goes right to the core of the profound inequality between the sexes. The movie only hints at it by training the camera mostly at the male bodies.
The first scenes of the strippers, both in their dressing room and in their choreographed routines are bracing, exciting, and fun. It is shocking to watch men unabashedly bump and grind at women. The club, as these clubs are, is a safe place for women to let out some steam. It's perfect for bachelorette parties, girls celebrating their passage into legal drinking age, girls' nights out, etc. The stripping dance routines are fueled by fantasy (firemen, detectives, policemen, construction workers, soldiers, doctors, etc), and there is something fun and lighthearted, almost innocent, about the whole scene. Soderbergh spends a lot of time on those male bodies and shows little of the club's clientele's reactions, to the point that the women become just blurry backdrop. I wish there was more of their titillation, their elation and their desire. More of the female gaze.
The movie has no time to dwell on this fascinating topic, preferring to focus on melodrama; the trials and tribulations of Mike, a decent, hardworking, talented guy who likes to make furniture from discarded debris and is wary of relationships. He helps Adam, (Alex Pettyfer), a dropout and slightly shady 19 year-old he meets at the construction site where he works by day, by introducing him to the world of male stripping. They are polar opposites. Mike is hardworking, has principle and straight ambitions, even if he loves threesomes (always with two women: all the strippers in this movie seem to be militantly heterosexual). Adam is blinded by the easy money and the easy sex. Adam's sister, Brooke (Cody Horn) is the ornery love interest who chafes at the thought of her brother and Mike belonging to this crazy circle of strippers. Matthew McConaughey, finally remembering he has always been a solid comic character actor, chews the scenery as Dallas, the flamboyant, fickle owner of the club. Their story is interrupted many times by dance routines at the club. After three or four dance scenes, the routines get boring. They stall the story. At the same time, the earnest, shoddily written story stalls the fun. The result is a movie that feels both long and undercooked, a fact that is not aided by mostly asinine, unimaginative dialogue that seems to have been lifted directly from Mumblecore. Some scenes feel like hack work, others are very effective. A particularly fun scene is when Adam undresses in front of the audience for the first time. The embarrassment, the mettle, and the churlishness he displays by being totally artless are what makes his stripping sexy. And there are a couple of funny moments delivered by good comic timing in editing, particularly involving McConaughey. But I have a feeling that Soderbergh's heart is elsewhere. There is a fuzziness, a lack of focus that feels distant and uncommitted, particularly compared to other, much more polished work from him. Some of the story doesn't make sense, as when Adam clearly betrays Mike and in the next scene they are hanging out as if nothing happened. I also don't believe Mike forgives and helps Adam for love of his sister Brooke. Mike slowly comes to regard Brooke as relationship material, but Cody Horn is so uncharismatic that her presence actually zaps the movie of life. This is the kind of creative decision that turns a decent movie into hack work. Brooke is a big, juicy part that should have gone to a better actress. But Horn happens to be the daughter of Alan Horn, the ex-Warner Brothers studio chief. Maybe she came with the financing. Ah, the things one has to do to make an honest living in America...

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