/ magic mike
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Not every screening of Magic Mike can begin with actual strippers, and in some way this is unfortunate. For one, it sets a tone for the evening that can only be described as “vivid”. For another, it puts an unusually reflexive spin on the potential realities of a movie that had seemed, pre-strippers strutting down the aisles in various states of outrageous undress, a total fantasy. Cinema is about nothing if not appearances and perceptions, and the world of Magic Mike is exactly that: pecs are flexed, abs are toned, and legs are shaving with your sister’s razor, all in the name of looking like “that dreamboat guy that never came along”. In Magic Mike, stripping is a fantasy where reality is only limited by the size of your package – and just like reality, you’ve got to work with what God gave you.
Channing Tatum plays the eponymous Mike, an “entrepreneur” with many strings to his bow: labourer by day, stripper extraordinaire to the hormonal/menopausal women of Tampa by night. He has a stake in Xquisite, an all-male dance revue lorded over by club owner and MC, Dallas (a disgustingly self-aware Matthew McConaughey), which provides him a steady (if sweat-stained) cash-flow. But there’s more to Mike than the g-strings, threesomes, and frequent pubic shavings that come from being a smokin’ hot piece of ass: modernist furniture, to be precise, which he dreams of making wholesale. But like any good character flaw, the quick cash and gratification of stripping proves a powerful lure, and when he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a naïve young protégé with the body and balls to make it big, Mike finds himself questioning the lifestyle he’s chosen to lead.
Magic Mike, co-produced by Tatum and based on his real-life experiences as a stripper, won’t win any awards for originality or narrative dynamite: this is a story Hollywood has told before, under differing titles like Coyote Ugly, Risky Business, and Flashdance. This is cliché wrapped in gimmick, but Mike’s biggest hook (read: gratuitous amounts of buff male flesh) discretely conceals an unexpectedly grounded and humorous drama. Yes, we’ve been to every story beat before – often in better, more unconventional films – but there’s an engaging amount of heart beneath all the rippling pectorals, and Tatum’s immensely likable turn as Mike (with able support from Pettyfer, TV regulars Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez and Joe Manganiello, and a scene-stealing McConaughey) is strong enough to carry the film, despite the thin conceit that eventually runs out of steam.
Direction comes care of cinematic chameleon, Steven Soderbergh – which, on reflection, doesn’t seem as odd a choice as it first appears. Known for his eclecticism as much as his indie sensibilities, Soderbergh brings a much needed naturalism and warmth to the picture, which only occasionally gives in to pretentious undertones. High art this is not, but if a film like this could be termed “understated”, Soderbergh comes close to achieving it: in his hands, Magic Mike is less a trashy, Showgirls-style exercise in gaudy excess, and more a restrained, less ambitious riff on the themes and tone of Boogie Nights (sans the literary value, and a great degree more hope). What he can’t avoid is the limitations of the script, which, while serviceable, does little to extend itself beyond our small expectations.
Magic Mike is not an important picture, nor is it an especially great one. The novelty wears thin and the jokes eventually stall as the story moves towards dramatic beats it doesn’t especially earn. As the audience leaves and the clean-up begins, the film feels as disposable as the empty Xquisite stage: the sweat all sucked dry, the lights hard and unflattering. As Mike discovers, the fantasy is unsustainable: though fun while it lasted, reality only satisfies when it’s projected on the screen.