Tragic ‘Mike’: When Steven Soderbergh Rains Men, It Pours…

Whoever cut the first trailer for Magic Mike should be taken out back and shot. (I’ll bet a week’s worth of tips it wasn’t Steven Soderbergh himself.) Rihanna’s “We Found Love” playing over scenes of stripper Channing Tatum whining about how he really just wants to make furniture, causing some generic chick to fall for him? Yuck. Suddenly one of my Most Anticipated Films Of 2012 was one of the biggest disappointments.

But maybe it’s just as well. Magic Mike made $40 million this weekend, probably because audiences thought they were getting exactly that movie. It would have sucked, but clearly it would have been successful. I’m sure at least 98% of the audience (consisting of .00001% lesbians and straight males) thought they were plunking down their twelve bucks for some beefcake trash, and nothing more. The cheapest outing to a male dance revue possible. Don’t get me wrong — Magic Mike delivers those goods, and how! But it is in no way the conventional and contrived movie the marketing made it out to be, and that’s because of Steven Soderbergh — far from a flawless filmmaker, but one who doesn’t often err on the side of being too safe and cookie-cutter. Perhaps I should have had more faith. It’s the rare filmmaker who can trick so many millions of people into watching a stripper movie that’s actually about something.

Loosely based on the pre-stardom “entertainment” career of Magic Mike himself, Channing Tatum, the story follows the meteoric rise and fall of a newcomer to this seedy scene — Adam, played by Alex Pettyfer. Adam meets Magic Mike on a construction gig he gets off Craisglist — the kid is desperate for cash, you see, after losing his college football scholarship. Now he’s crashing on his big sister’s couch, stealing extra Pepsis from his boss at work. At first, Mike thinks he can use the kid as a promoter for Xquisite, the Chippendale’s-esque club at which he is the big bright shining star, run by the pereptually shirtless Dallas. But in a pinch, they rush “The Kid” on the stage to perform, and a(nother) star is born. At least, a star in the Tampa male stripping scene — a fairly small circuit, to be sure. Regardless, Adam suddenly has cash, women, and drugs at his disposal, all of which he uses with abandon. Yes, the ingenue is in for an inevitable downfall, but at the same time, Mike is flirting with Adam’s sister Brooke, and possibly questioning his future as a career stripper. So maybe while Adam’s on the way down, Mike’s on the way up? Maybe.

The mechanics of Magic Mike‘s plot are predictable and ultimately inconsequential. Pretty much every film of this ilk has the same setup, hitting similar beats along the way — from the masterful Boogie Nights to the camp classic Showgirls to the insufferable Burlesque. Taking your clothes off for a living isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, this subgenre tells us. Stardom corrupts, even when (or especially when) the “fame” is mostly in your own mind. The above films take these themes to various extremes with mixed results, but Magic Mike doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as any of those movies. It’s in no hurry to teach any lessons. The point it makes is a sly one, serving as something of a Trojan horse. You came to see naked men? Well, now see what all that shrieking and squealing and grabbing does to them? You’re turning them into monsters, you bitches! That 98% of the audience who came for abs and pecs, hold the morality tale, will likely leave the theater feeling pretty bummed out that the story takes a dark turn for the semi-tragic. It’s all fun and games until a druggie slut’s piglet starts eating your vomit — not so sexy now, are you, Magic Mike?

But the 2% of us who came to see a Steven Soderbergh movie can sigh in relief, because this is one, through-and-through. Magic Mike knows we’ve seen those low-rent versions of All About Eve before, knows we’ve seen too many ingenues seduced and corrupted by stardom. It decides to go somewhere else instead, and yes, it takes its sweet time getting there.

The script by Reid Carolin is smart enough not to hit any of these beats too squarely; it’s one of the most relaxed, leisurely studio movies you’re likely to see. (Truthfully, it needed less than bare-bones plot it’s got.) There’s depth to it, but if you don’t care to look for it, Soderbergh and company are just fine with that — they don’t hit you over the head with the “point” of it all the way so many movies do. Adam is a bland cipher of a character, which would be a major problem if it were his story we’re following; we’ve seen that character arc played out too many times, notably through Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. In many ways, Magic Mike is “Boogie Nights Lite” in the same way that a strip club is a “lite” version of hardcore porn. There’s drugs and degradation and raging egos on parade in both films, but Magic Mike doesn’t have grandiose, decades-spanning ambitions; nor does it ask us to sympathize with Adam; nor is it interested in redeeming him. Magic Mike isn’t a heavy-hitting drama, but it is brutally honest and even somewhat bleak about at least one thing — that the lifestyle of a male stripper will waste as many lives as it ultimately sustains. It leaves Adam’s fate up in the air, but not very hopefully; check in with him in ten years and I bet the sequel would be rather grim indeed. That strikes me as rather brave, for a movie like this, considering its intended audience.

As the title suggests, though, it’s Magic Mike and not Adam whose fate we’re really concerned with — which is something of a novelty in this formula also — like if Gina Gershon ended up being the star of Showgirls, rather than Elizabeth Berkeley. (If only!) Yes, there is that whole storyline about Magic Mike desperately wanting to make custom furniture instead of taking his clothes off, but in the context of the movie, it’s not all that hammy. We are not subjected to any scenes of Magic Mike wistfully whittling away at his wood or presenting a romantic handmade desk chair to his love interest. The furniture stuff doesn’t come into play as much as you’d think; it remains like most people’s “someday…” dreams — ethereal, intangible, just an idea. 

And — spoiler alert, for those who really care about what happens with Channing Tatum’s coffee tables — this story doesn’t end with Brooke walking into Mike’s Magic Furniture Emporium, or whatever. We’re left to wonder if Mike will ever achieve his dreams, as well as if he even really wants to — or if his self-proclaimed status as an “entrepreneur” is really just his way of coming off like he’s “above” what he does for a living. 

When Brooke calls him on his bullshit, Mike stammers through a version of the same “I am not my profession!” speech we usually get in these movies. (Witness Nomi screeching “I’m not a whore!” in Showgirls, when, in fact, she is.) But here we get the sense that, as Mike says these words, he’s realizing they’re not as true as he’s always thought. It’s a pretty insightful bit of acting from Channing Tatum, flipping that ordinarily self-righteous moment into one that’s really about self-doubt undercutting all that posturing. It’s the moment we roll our eyes at in a movie like Showgirls, but Soderbergh is shrewd enough not to ask us to feel sorry for any of his strippers. They chose this life and got a lot out of it — money, sex, and good times. For some of these guys, that’s enough. But not for Magic Mike. Almost any other filmmaker would force us to pity him and strike a false note, as that unbearable first trailer did. Soderbergh, as usual, is a little more objective than that.

And it’s this objectivity that makes Soderbergh the perfect director for Magic Mike, as unlikely as this match is. I’m still not sure what drew him to this material, because his strengths as a filmmaker have never suggested vapid, crowd-pleasing subject matter like this. But wait — what about Ocean’s Eleven? That glossy Las Vegas caper, peppered with chiseled sex symbols like George Clooney and Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, might seem an ideal warm-up for this tale of sleazy Florida nightlife, except Magic Mike isn’t nearly as palatable and easy on the eyes as the first Ocean’s was. Sure, there’s ample skin on display and genuine razzle-dazzle in the strip sequences, but Magic Mike isn’t as pretty or polished as it might have been, especially when you consider the sunny, sandy beachiness of its setting. Even those strip sequences unfold in reasonably long takes, like the fight scenes from Haywire, allowing you to appreciate the choreography and skill of the performers. Most directors would cut it to pieces; Soderbergh allows us to admire what’s happening onstage, like we’re actually there.

Stylistically, Magic Mike has more in common with Soderbergh’s artier, more experimental films like The Girlfriend Experience or Full Frontal than it does with Ocean’s Eleven or even Erin Brockovich; the eye-candy is fine, but there’s no real effort to be steamy or intimate the way Out Of Sight is. Magic Mike isn’t as cold and clinical as Contagion, but there’s a similar coolness and restraint on display. Soderbergh is generous (and clever) enough to give the audience what they paid for in those stripping scenes (and a handful of other money shots), but he’s clearly more interested in more than mere titillation. Technically, he’s made that paint-by-numbers story we expect, but just barely; what he’s really done is elevate it — lift it up and show us what’s underneath that lovely facade.

Magic Mike has money on its mind, and there’s something pretty interesting about the way the excess of these guys’ lifestyle is undercut by the state of our economy (never mentioned, but present in subtext). It’d be a very different movie had it been made in the 80’s, without that unspoken undercurrent of gloom and doom and financial ruin. Yes, these guys are raking in the singles on a nightly basis, but they’re worried about money all the same — aren’t we all? One scene, featuring Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt as a bank employee, gives us the opportunity to see Mike actually going after his furniture-making goals, reminiscent of Out Of Sight and Erin Brockovich, except without any note of triumph for our hero this time around. Magic Mike doesn’t come right out and say it, but there’s genuine tension about whether or not Mike will follow Dallas’ footsteps and get sucked into the nightlife for good. After all, strippers have a shelf life; some of these guys are coming up on their expiration dates. Mike knows that iif he doesn’t get his business off the ground, in another decade or so, he’ll be all out of magic. And then what?

Similarly, I appreciated how thoroughly Soderbergh explores the inner workings of Dallas’ business; what we witness backstage and behind the scenes is as crucial to Magic Mike as what we see during the performances. No doubt in large part thanks to Tatum’s input, Magic Mike offers a pretty realistic glimpse into the nightlife industry, the perks and pitfalls and all. Xquisite isn’t like the absurd nightclub in Burlesque, which makes no real-world sense whatsoever. It feels like a legitimate business. And Magic Mike and the gang’s “fame” is kept in check, remaining true-to-scale. Remember how the inner politics of Vegas’ showgirls scene are inexplicably covered by the news in Showgirls? Yeah… that doesn’t happen here.Instead, Soderbergh spends his time giving us hints about the chinks in the beefcake armor these guys parade around in. The male ego is a fragile thing, especially when it’s so brazenly on display, and it requires plenty of drugs and denial for these guys to keep thinking they’re God’s gift night in and night out when, really, they’re dancing around in thongs to collect ones and fives from the bored housewives and bachelorettes of Tampa. The first few dance sequences in Magic Mike are appropriately sexy, but by the last one, it starts to feel a bit rote and repetitive already. The women are having the time of their lives, but that’s because they’re here to go stir-crazy for one night only, probably never to return. It’s the novelty that makes it exciting — but that wears off. Once we pull back the curtain on this fantasy world, we see it for what it is — not so fantastic.

Will that peek at the grimier side of stripper life alienate the women and gay men who flock to Magic Mike with their singles ready? Maybe. Magic Mike isn’t likely the movie they’re expecting, though it does contain plenty of what they paid to see. The first hour plays out as pure escapist entertainment. That’s when we see the majority of the stripping. The dance numbers are surprisingly well-choreographed and high-concept — to the extent of disbelief? Not quite. We do get one rather hilarious depiction of the guys rehearsing their moves, but beyond that, we’re privy only to those slick productions — and we can see what all the fuss is about, particularly whenever Magic Mike is on stage.

For Channing Tatum, it’s a star turn — he’s mesmerizing to watch as a dancer, even with his clothes on. As he also proved in the surprisingly effective 21 Jump Street, he’s a more charismatic actor than the movies he’s previously starred in have let him show. The sexiest, most eye-popping sequences in Magic Mike don’t involve nudity at all — just Tatum’s moves and command of the stage. As for his off-stage work, that real-world experience as a stripper goes along way in making this a fully realized, lived-in performance. In his own understated way, Magic Mike is a pretty terrific screen character; not quite as dynamic as someone like Dirk Diggler or even Showgirls‘ Nomi, but worthy of his place in the movie stripper pantheon.

The rest of the casting works — which is to say, everyone manages to do what is asked of them, which is not all that much. Fortunately, the script keeps the central romance on the backburner for most of the movie, sparing us the tiresome back-and-forth melodrama most performance-based love stories foist upon us. (See: Burlesque. But oh god, don’t actually see it.) The Brooke character isn’t nearly as obnoxious as the trailer makes her out to be, and Cody Horn brings a different energy to the ensemble; while everyone else in the cast is a showy extrovert, letting it all hang out, she’s more like the rest of us. Also helpfully, she brings Mike and the cheesy, beefy world of male stripping down a peg or two when they need it, which is fairly often. She’s the movie’s voice of reason — though we don’t, perhaps, get to know her quite as well as we’d like to be truly invested in whether or not she and Mike ever take that magic to the next level. Still, Horn and Tatum have a good deal more chemistry than most of his previous co-stars in much lesser movies.

But enough about her. Where’s the beef? Well, Alex Pettyfer gets his first opportunity to perform in a movie that’s anything close to good, and he doesn’t blow it. It’s not a strong performance, but I’m not sure it’s suppose to be, given where his character ends up. Meanwhile, the character description of Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie starts and ends with that moniker, and Matt Bomer plays drugged-out Ken, who likes other guys to play with his wife’s tits. These guys are really only here to be objectified — but they can’t all be aspiring furniture-makers, eh?

There is, of course, one more notable performance in Magic Mike, and that’s the scene-stealing Dallas, as played by Matthew McConaughey in full-on Tom Cruise-in-Magnolia mode. It’s like every character Matthew McConaughey has ever played chopped up, stuffed back into his near-nude body, and pumped full of steroids. Dallas is the kind of role that can only be played by a major movie star, because it takes some serious self-confidence to do what is done here without a drop of worry that it’ll be a career-ender. I’m not sure how many other actors could play Dallas as unhinged and balls-out as McConaughey allows himself to be here. (Given that this is Magic Mike, I suppose I should specify that I am using “balls-out” strictly as a metaphor.) Dallas is a talented performer, a savvy businessman, and a punchline all rolled into one, providing comic relief but also, ultimately, a critique of this superficial line of work.

Magic Mike ultimately finds Dallas — and perhaps stripping at large — rather pathetic. Most movie stars get a close-up on their face in the last scene of the movie; the last we see of Dallas is his bare ass, displayed to a room full of fawning, screaming strangers.So there you have it — Magic Mike, laid bare. Like its title character, the movie is smarter and more ambitious than you’d think; probably smarter and more ambitious than most spectators even want it to be. I wouldn’t say Magic Mike is a downer, but it’s not an aphrodisiac, either. You don’t leave it humming “It’s Raining Men,” racing back to the privacy of your own home to rip your clothes off in front of the mirror. Is that a mistake? Should Soderbergh have followed the lead of actual male strip clubs and succumbed to pure fantasy? Is it too much to ask to let us have a good time and not think about what happens when the show is over — the drugs and drama and financial strife? Do we need a moral lesson with our bump and grind, a dollop of darkness along with those G-string gyrations? Must we see the naked truth in addition to those naked Adonises? Couldn’t Magic Mike have been 100% magic, 0% tragic?

Well, if that’s what you want, you’ll have to take yourself to a Chippendale’s, not a Steven Soderbergh movie. I’m not sure who, exactly, the audience for a thinking man’s male stripper movie is, except I know I’m a part of it. Magic Mike is not a profound movie, nor a flawless one; it keeps us at a distance from its performers. Our emotional investment in this tale is pretty minimal, but it did hold my interest. And if there’s going to be a frothy summer movie about the based-on-a-true-story clothes-shedding antics of Channing Tatum, well, I’ll happily take this one over the awful Burlesque-esque one we would have gotten with just about anyone besides Steven Soderbergh behind the camera.

The vaguely dark, semi-tragic, quasi-artsy male stripper movie Magic Mike has already made back over four times its modest budget, establishing it as a certified hit. Which means Soderbergh’s rain of men can be met with a qualified “Hallelujah!”

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