Channing Tatum Steps Acting Chops In Soderbergh’s ‘Magic Mike’
By STEWART SMITH
I am not here to be your moral compass.
I think it's important to keep that in mind, especially as I review a movie about male strippers. I've heard and read no shortage of people who are aghast that a movie about male strippers even exists, much less that I would willingly go see one. I'm going to leave the moral judgments to you. Those are best left for you to make for you and your family. I'm here simply to examine a film based on its successes and failures as a piece of art and culture.
Basically, if you find the concept of male strippers (or just strippers in general) to be morally reprehensible, you probably weren't going to go see this anyway.
That said, "Magic Mike" is a pretty good movie.
Being a heterosexual male, I can't say that I was necessarily excited to see a movie about male strippers, but I figure that if it's a subject that was interesting enough to director Steven Soderbergh, that's a good enough reason as any to give it a shot. The result is a film that doesn't feel like an essential entry into the director's filmography, but it is a film that occupies an interesting spot in the latter days of the man's career.
Interesting still is that it was inspired by its star's own real life experiences. While filming "Haywire" together, Channing Tatum began telling Soderbergh of his time spent as a male stripper before eventually becoming an actor. The specifics may not mirror Tatum's life exactly, but Tatum appears so comfortable with the story being told that there's no doubt that this is grounded in some amount of fact.
What "Magic Mike" is not, however, is a two-hour paean to the profession of stripping. The trailers and previews may focus largely on the raunchy glitz and style of being on a stage surrounded by screaming women, but Soderbergh isn't out to glorify the lifestyle or its inhabitants. The film never goes so far as to "expose the seedy underbelly of stripping" (at least not in such an ominous manner), but it's certainly not out to promote stripping as a desirable profession. We're given a look at how harmful the lifestyle can be, but Soderbergh trusts his audience enough to understand the cyclical destruction at play.
The focus is on the titular Mike (Tatum), a veteran stripper who is very good at what he does. His on-stage moves are the highlight of any show that is put on at XQUISITE, a Tampa Bay strip club. XQUISITE is run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), a hilariously narcissistic (he has painted portraits of himself in his house and drinks from a chalice) and sleazy businessman who takes visible pleasure at hyping up the ladies for each night's show. Dallas views Mike as the key ingredient to his future success as he attempts to move to a bigger, better club in Miami, because in addition to being the star attraction, Mike also does the bookkeeping and general organization around the place.
But as much as he enjoys the raucous crowds, the late nights of partying and the fat stacks of cash he walks home with, Mike doesn't want to become Dallas. He wants a more fulfilling life, one where he can design custom furniture and maybe even settle down with a nice girl. The only problem is that the bank won't give him a loan due to his bad credit (even though he's got $13,000 in cash ready to put down).
So it's back to the daily grind he goes, working construction and doing auto detailing on the side, and along the way he encounters Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a fresh-faced 19-year-old who can't hold down a job because he's either too picky (he refuses to wear a tie) or gets caught stealing. It's not long until Adam discovers what Mike does at night and he's quickly thrust into the enthralling life of being a stripper.
What's somewhat surprising is how little time the on-stage antics of Mike and Adam and the rest of the dances occupy the film. There are numerous such scenes strewn throughout, but Soderbergh is far more interested in Mike as a character, although there isn't a traditional narrative with a three act structure at play. Mostly we're constantly being pushed further into Mike's world as we see his frustrations mount as his life gets pushed further into a world he finds increasingly undesirable.
The somewhat untraditional flow of the story is assuaged by the way Soderbergh manages to propel it all forward, never dwelling too long on one scene or story element, but also because Channing Tatum feels like he's finally coming into his own as a dramatic presence. If you had told me at the start of the year that I would find the previously wooden and mush-mouthed Tatum to be one of my favorite new young rising stars, I'd have laughed. Seriously, go look up my old review from last year's "The Eagle." I practically immolated the guy with my critique of his performance.
It shouldn't be much of a surprise that Tatum has found an all-new confidence and screen presence while working on a Steven Soderbergh movie, though. The same thing happened to George Clooney with "Out of Sight," where he went from head bobbing TV hunk to legitimate actor. It's too early to call Tatum another Clooney, but he certainly showcases a certain level of promise that wasn't previously apparent. Between this and the still hilarious "21 Jump Street," this is Tatum's year.
Even Alex Pettyfer (another actor whose wooden acting I previously lambasted in "I Am Number Four") comes out better than expected. He's not in line for a Tatum-esque turnaround (yet), but he acquits himself far better than expected. The same goes for Olivia Munn as Mike's occasional late-night rendezvous (though he wishes they were more).
The only real weak link in the cast is relative newcomer Cody Horn as Brooke, Adam's older sister. She's not bad, but doesn't quite hit the notes on the page.
"Magic Mike" is hardly what I would classify as "essential Soderbergh," but it's still a well-made film that has more on its mind than simply giving the audience gratuitous amounts of nudity and dancing. Speaking of nudity, there's actually more female nudity than full male nudity. There's still a buffet of buff, though it rarely goes "all the way." The audience I saw it with may have been disappointed by that fact.
You see, I attended an opening night screening at Carmike's biggest auditorium which seats 353. I was one of only 12 men in attendance. The remaining 300-plus women in attendance could not have been more excited to be there. There was cheering, clapping, whistling, hooting. I couldn't tell where the surround sound ended and the audience began. At times it was as though my theater often became an extension of the strip club's audience, they were so into it. In other words, it was the perfect environment to have seen the film in.
Soderbergh is in an interesting place. He keeps saying he's going to retire, yet he's been cranking out films at a faster rate than at almost any other time in his career. "Magic Mike" isn't his best or even his most stylish piece of work, but it's proof that the man can make a worthwhile film with good characters out of just about any premise.