Thursday, June 28, 2012

Magic Mike Effectively Straddles the Line Between Camp and Art

This pictures captures the first of many, many stripping scenes.
With Magic Mike, director Steven Soderbergh and producers Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin (who star and write, respectively) pull a pretty neat trick.

This is a male stripper movie headed up by Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, and it delivers the goods promised in the trailers. Unsurprisingly, it’s bound to repel straight men, while also providing guilty pleasure to countless women (and gay men) hoping to ogle, hoot and holler with a group of friends.* 
* This really is the type of movie you want to see in a packed theater. In my theater, groups of women and gay men were out in droves and their good natured glee was infectious. Even better: the response of a straight man that came unaware of what he was in for. Somewhere in the middle of the first stripping sequence, when a character disrobed to a thong and jiggled their ass at the camera, he stood up, screamed "Hell no!” and marched out of the theater. Laughter followed.
At the same time, this is a Soderbergh film, and although he doesn’t shy away from offering the audience multiple helpings of manmeat, he also injects Magic Mike with his patented clinical approach and indie sensibilities. The end result is a fun raunchy romp that simultaneously plays as a dark and shrewdly observed slice of life that is as revealing in its details and character moments as it is in its lively and numerous stripping sequences.
The movie tells a pretty simple and formulaic story. Mike (Tatum) is a self-described entrepreneur who has his hands in a variety of businesses in the hopes of raising enough money to eventually start his own custom furniture business. His main source of income just so happens to come from his role as Magic Mike, one of the "cock-rocking kings of Tampa" at Xquisite, a male strip club owned by stripper mentor and emcee Dallas (McConaughey).
In his seven years as a stripper, Mike’s only saved $13,000 toward his dream, but he has created a portfolio, moved into a fairly luxurious pad, and led a high partying lifestyle that includes, as we see in his introductory scene, three-way flings with fuckbuddy  Joanna (Olivia Munn)** and random girls whose names neither can recall. 
** Guys wary of all the male skin, may be interested in the fact that the popular Munn does show off her assets in an early scene (they are displayed shortly after Tatum shows off his behind).
While working his roof tiling gig, Mike befriends Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old who threw away a football scholarship and is now adrift and crashing on the couch of his sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Mike eventually takes the kid under his wing, and it isn’t long before he’s impressed Dallas and joined the crew of Xquisite, alongside Mike and the likes of Ken (White Collar’s Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (True Blood’s Joe Manganiello),Tarzan (former wrestler Kevin Nash), and Tito (CSI: Miami’s Adam Rodriguez).
As the story progresses, we see Mike toying with the idea of life after stripping, pursuing his business interests and falling for the straight laced Brooke, all the while Adam begins to venture further and further down a sordid path that not only includes stripping, but also druggy sexual encounters and even some ecstasy dealing.

A girl fails to resist the charms of the guy who brought her kid
brother into the world of stripping and drug use.

The narrative setup isn’t exactly original, but the dialogue and characters are finely written and the execution so assured that there’s no mistaking this for a gender-reversed Showgirls. The film, which is reportedly inspired by Tatum’s previous life as a male stripper, really embraces the little details, showing Mike in a quiet moment flattening crumpled dollar bills or a bespectacled Bick Dick Richie working on a thong with a sewing machine.
It also offers Tatum, who impressed earlier this year in 21 Jump Street, his best role to date. Hollywood is starving for a young movie star, and given the 2012 he’s had and the projects on his upcoming slate, the quickly rising star may be it. Like Brad Pitt and George Clooney before him, he started his career as a sex symbol, but has consistently sought to grow as an actor, seeking out interesting projects, many of which have been headed by fantastic directors. None of them have been better than Soderbergh (who, incidentally helped legitimize Clooney as a big screen force), and it’s worth noting that he saw enough in Tatum when working on Haywire, to work with him on his last two theatrical releases before his much-discussed retirement/break from film.
Tatum rises to the challenge and really digs in with a winning performance that exploits and fine-tunes the laidback charm and restless vulnerability he’s showcased in his better roles. What really makes the performance is how effortless and naturalistic Tatum comes across, whether he’s donning a suit and glasses to talk equity with a loan officer, break dance stripping in the club (displaying moves kept under wraps since his breakthrough role in Step Up), or falling over his words as he tries to convince Brooke (and himself) that he “is not his lifestyle.”
The question of whether or not Mike is, in fact, his lifestyle provides the backbone of the story. He talks about starting his own business and works hard, and yet he’s still living vicariously and has only saved $13,000 in seven years. For a guy brining in several hundred a night tax free, that’s not exactly a lot of money. We’re told Mike has bad credit (and thus can’t get a bank loan), so the implication is that he, like Adam, may have made some dumb decisions when he was a young, wide-eyed party animal and has fallen into a slippery slope situation. 
McConaughey is awesome.
If Adam is the Mike of days gone by, Dallas is set up as what lies ahead for Mike if he doesn’t get off his current course. Dallas is a successful and astute business man, but he’s also a self-deifying blowhard who relishes his seedy existence. While everyone around him gets plenty of chances to strip on the catwalk, the movie wisely saves McConaughey’s big number for the film’s final moments, setting it as the backdrop during which Mike decides whether or not to withdraw himself from such an undesirable future.
The key supporting players are strong.  Pettyfer understates the melodrama nicely, while Horn, despite getting stuck playing the nag, grounds the film and displays excellent chemistry with Tatum. Meanwhile McConaughey, who has unjustly gotten a reputation as a bad actor due to years of mailing it in with generic romantic comedies, reminds how sly a performer he can be, offering up an interpretation that is equal parts magnetic, hilarious, creepy, and delusional. This is a bold performance that literally peaks with McConaughey bending over in from of the camera, and the fact that he was willing to put himself out there, while also delivering on the acting front, is laudable.
Tech aspects are excellent across the board. Serving as his own DP, Soderbergh employs a sepia-tinged filter and offers up some pretty atypical shot selections. Some of these are beautifully evocative and disarming, but the most memorable uses a widescreen frame to depict Adam stumbling upon Big Dick Ritchie fluffing himself prior to a performance (leave it to a craftsman like Soderbergh to shoot a demonstration of penis enlargement both humorously and artfully). 

Having said all of that, the movie isn’t perfect. It’s at least 10 minutes too long, and while almost every scene has a refreshing authenticity, Adam’s first few scenes in the club (particularly the one that necessitates he must go on stage) are silly and poorly constructed. 
And although the casting director deserves plaudits for brining in an eclectic group of beefcakes (particularly Manganiello who has become a major object of lust for the many True Blood fans and Boomer who’s probably one of the most popular gay icons out there right now), they are vastly underused. Initially, I suspected the movie would give them something to do (the first scene with the crew is funny and the roles feel lived in), but they devolve into nothing more than window dressing. Surprisingly, it’s Nash who leaves the greatest impression, injecting a Mickey Rourkeian vibe into his role as Tarzan.
Soderbergh and Tatum will team up for a third time in next
February's The Bitter Pill.

Overall, this is a really strong effort from all involved. There’s obviously a level of camp to the film, and most of the plot beats are formulaic, but the care put into the characters, dialogue, acting and craft aspects enable to film to transcend the core material. It’s a simple story with familiar themes, but Soderbergh and Tatum really hit it out of the park. Their next team up, The Bitter Pill, will see them working with a script from frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant, Contagion), as well as a cast that includes Jude Law, Catherine Zeta Jones and Rooney Mara (in her first performance her Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The film his theaters in eight months, and seeing what the duo has accomplished here, I’m anxiously anticipating it. A