Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: Magic Mike

by Patrick Bromley
The aspect of the new Channing Tatum stripper movie Magic Mike that's being ignored in all the marketing and hype is that it's a really good movie.

Warner Bros. really shouldn't be blamed, as they've done an excellent job marketing the movie: they're selling a big, fun, naked guy party, and I'm actually glad that's the route they've chosen to take. It's getting a bunch of people (mostly women) out to the theater thinking that they're getting that, then tricking them into seeing a Steven Soderbergh movie.

Make no mistake about it: Magic Mike is very much a modern-era Steven Soderbergh movie. It features his usual overlapping editing rhythms. It's impeccably photographed, as always by Soderbergh himself (under the name Peter Andrews). It has, at times, the documentary-like feel of Bubble; it has the same concerns with what we're willing to sell for money as The Girlfriend Experience; it has characters who construct identities by lying to themselves like Matt Damon in The Informant!. Though there are plenty of stripping sequences to keep the ladies who line up to see the movie satiated, the movie is much more thoughtful than the big naked party it pretends to be.
Based on a "story" by Channing Tatum (who worked as a male dancer for 18 months before becoming a famous actor; the screenplay by Reid Carolin isn't based on Tatum's experiences so much as by the kinds of things he saw going on during that time), the movie follows Mike, male stripper by night and all-purpose entrepreneur by day: he runs his own roofing business, club promotion company, car detailing business -- anything that deals in cash. Yes, Mike is selling himself, but only as a means to an end; his real dream is to start his own custom furniture business.

Mike meets an aimless but good looking 19-year old named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who he quickly gets in the door at Xquisite; before long, Adam is dubbed "The Kid" and thrown up on stage, more than happy to indulge in the life of sex, drugs and cash afforded to him as a dancer. Mike also takes an interest in Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam's no-nonsense sister, who sees right through his bullshit but likes him anyway. As The Kid is falls further under the spell of Xquisite and its owner, former male dancer and possible sleazy con man Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, doing either an excellent job of either sending up his own image or just being himself), Mike slowly realizes that his lifestyle is less a means to an end than a definition of who he is.

Did anyone else see this Channing Tatum thing coming? I know he's had a following for years, mostly made up of teenage girls who think he's cute and like him in his Step Up and Nicholas Sparks movies. He's never done much for me, however; his best performances (like in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Stop-Loss) always seemed like a case of good casting over good acting. But between his work in Haywire, a brilliant (that's right) comic turn in 21 Jump Street and now Magic Mike, Tatum is pretty much owning 2012. Here he gets to be funny and charming, smart but misguided. Fake. Sincere. Shallow. Wounded. He gets to take off his shirt. He gets to dance a lot, at which he is great. This is his first real movie star turn, and it actually suits him well. That doesn't mean that he's going to start playing roles way outside of his comfort zone, but that's true of a lot of movie stars. We go to see them do the things that they do best. That's what Magic Mike does for Channing Tatum.
His performance feels natural, and there is an unforced ease to the acting that extends across the entire cast. Cody Horn, as the film's possible love interest, is probably going to be accused of being stiff and cold, but it's part of the movie's overall aesthetic -- the characters feel less like actors playing parts than real people being followed around by cameras. Part of this has to do with Soderbergh's documentarian approach; part of it is his penchant for non-traditional casting. Here he uses former wrestler Kevin Nash, stand-up comic Gabriel Iglesias and fanboy fantasy girl Olivia Munn, all to good effect (Munn's casting, in particular, is very clever in terms of what she's asked to do in the movie -- it's all about presenting a fantasy and then subverting it). Even Alex Pettyfer, who I had previously written off as being the worst, is totally effective in his role, and his casting is another bit of meta-commentary on his own celebrity: he's the pretty face shoved in front of an audience and immediately told he's a star, whether or not he's done anything to earn it. If Pettyfer is smarter about the roles he chooses, Magic Mike suggests his career might actually survive the one-two punch of I Am Number Four and Beastly.

Magic Mike is not a great movie -- it doesn't break any molds, and there isn't much in the movie that we don't see coming -- but it is a very good movie, and further proof that Soderbergh can elevate almost any material he touches. This summer has been filled with pleasant surprises: movies that are better than we expect, or that are different or interesting and carve out space for themselves. Magic Mike continues that trend, and keeps Soderbergh's amazing streak of navigating indie-style movies inside the studio system alive. It's too bad, then, that half the audience is going to see it for the wrong reasons and be disappointed, while the other half is going avoid it for those same reasons and miss out on something special. Serves them right, I guess.


  1. "His real dream is to start his own custom furniture business."

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, there young fella, I know they tell you to dream big when you're in school and shit, but calm the fuck down. You've already got your own roofing business, save some of that Dream Juice for the rest of us!

    I dunno, Patrick, this is a good thoughtful review and all, but I still don't really feel compelled to see it. Though I know intellectually (and you have confirmed) that Soderbergh couldn't possibly make a movie as mindless as the trailers make it look, I think the damage done is too much for me to get past. I guess what I'll take from your review is that it will be worth watching for free once it hits The Movie Network in 9 months. I am dying to know if he, um, manages to start his own custom furniture business.

    1. Well, I tried. And if you still have no interest in seeing it, you should re-read the list line of the review. Just out of curiosity, what would be a more acceptable ambition for Mike to have?

    2. Something more mature - like an astronaut, a cowboy, gynecologist to the stars...

      Remember kids, the only acceptable dreams are the ones that make a smashing film!

    3. And succeeded, really, Patrick - you moved me from "ignore it completely" to "watch it eventually". Seriously, I wasn't even bothering to check out reviews but I read yours and I do believe there's more to Magic Mike than I had thought.

      And c'mon guys, we are talking about a movie here, right? Like, I'm not commenting on the real lives and ambitions of normal people in actual reality - I would never scoff at anyone's dream. But I'm sorry, as a movie it just struck me funny. "She's a loving Mom and a smart businesswoman and at night, she sells her ass on the street. But she's a hooker with a dream. A dream to open...a sewing store." I mean when you set up a story about a person who is SELLING THEMSELVES in pursuit of a dream, you expect that dream to be more in line with that personal cost. Like, say you make a movie about a guy literally selling his soul to the devil to become a politician, would you expect him to want to be Mayor of Dildo, Newfoundland (real place!) or President of the United States? Extreme examples, but hopefully it helps illustrate where I was coming from. Definitely wasn't shitting on non-fantastical real-world dreams.

    4. I so don't think you're offending the custom furniture makers of the world or anything like that. I get your point; just thought it was odd that you locked in on that one aspect of the movie. I think the idea is just that he has a goal that is NOT stripping, and that it's something he can do and do for himself. It makes more sense to me that it be a modest goal. Again, point taken, and please don't think I'm filled with fake outrage over the comment. It was taken in the spirit in which it was intended.

    5. Heheh - okay good - it just tickled me when I read it and I ran with it - admittedly it received a disproportionate amount of my attention but by no means do I consider it a dealbreaker as far as the movie goes.

      Does the custom furniture idea have some deeper, hidden meaning though? Like he's good at HANDLING WOOD? STRIPPING furniture? SCREWING, NAILING and REUPHOLSTERING? Hmmm? Okay, maybe not the last one, but hmmm?

  2. Re-posting here an edited-down review of "Magic Mike" from last week's "Trailers with Doug" column:

    If you're willing to indulge in Soderbergh's 'present-day story shot/constructed with a 70's aesthetic' and have a strong tolerance for open-ended narratives and guys stripping, then "Magic Mike" is for you. Seriously, the stripping scenes were fine, energetic and funny ("Showgirls" this ain't). I've seen women doing it in movies since forever so I say time to give the fairer sex a shot at some cinematic beefcake fun. I personally felt the movie was missing a third and final act, but it was clearly an artistic decision and the ending, ironically but very deliberately given the subject matter, climaxes at just the right moment. Matthew McConaughey steals the movie; it's as if David from "Dazed and Confused" grew up, kept in shape and opened a strip club for women minus the 'stache. Shame that Olvia Munn has an important part (she's horrible, big surprise) and Cady Horn, on whose shoulders a considerable amount of the movie's dramatic heft rests, can't do better than a Julia Stiles-is-pouting impression (although, to be fair, she gets better and nails along with Tatum the dramatic dismount).

    "Magic Mike" is basically "Boogie Nights"-lite filtered through Soderbergh's cinematic eye, and that's good-enough to see even if you wonder as you see the beefcake on parade why you (a raging heterosexual male so secure in his own masculinity) are doing in the theater watching it in the first place.

  3. Att this point I'll see anything that Soderbergh puts out. Your (excellent) review confirmed my suspicion that there was a lot morre than the surface in this film. I saw it as the flipside to The Girlfriend Experience from the day it was announced.

    I'd love to see him make a full-on horror movie - the closest he got being Contagion.

  4. I don't know what it was about this movie, but I just had a freakin' ball with it. I laughed, hooted, hollered, and loved watching what Soderbergh could do with a "male stripper movie". Definitely wasn't a film that had no chance of working but pulled it off very well. Good review Patrick.

  5. I agree that I was not expecting Magic Mike to actually have some substantial plotlines between the scenes of sheer eye-candy! It’s certainly not going to be winning any Academy Awards, but at least it wasn’t completely brainless! However, I don’t think any women in the theater with me even realized there was a story to it; at least I don’t see how they could’ve known since barely anything could be heard over the ceaseless shrills and giggles. I guess I don’t blame them, seeing as Channing Tatum is one gorgeous hunk of man. I’m sure if I wasn’t accompanied by a few Dish coworkers of mine, I would’ve let my hair loose a bit more. But, next time, I’m definitely going to watch the flick on DVD to avoid the crowd it attracts. Luckily, I have the Blockbuster@Home service through my Dish account that delivers all the newest movies to me right when they are available, so it shouldn’t be too long before I’m blessed once again by the sight of those abs and, oh yeah, that riveting storyline.

  6. I never imagined that I would see The Full Monty re-envisioned by the Oscar winning director of Erin Brokovich and Traffic. But yup, here you have it: Steven Soderberg has created his stripping opus.

  7. Channing Tatum impresses by taking the stage flipping and gyrating for the screaming women in the audience. Chicks will love it!