Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Kind of Magic

Of all the films I hoped I would like in 2012, I think I can safely say that I did not imagine going into a movie about male stripping and come away happy with what I had just witnessed. And yet Magic Mike had a lot going for it when it was released to theaters this past weekend. For one, the whole thing was directed by Steven Soderbergh and while I don't always get behind the man's movues, he certainly does solid work with interesting, unique ideas. The second reason I wanted to see this was star Channing Tatum, on whose early days as a stripper in Tampa the screenplay is partially based. For what feels like a long time I have criticized Tatum's largely wooden facial expressions and general lack of acting ability, as he has been allowed to get by mainly on his looks (or in the early Step Up films, his dancing). But this year has been a turning point for the young actor, whose performances in Soderbergh's under-appreciated Haywire and the amazingly funny 21 Jump Street showed a side of the star we hadn't really seen. He's quickly proving that he is more than just a fem-friendly beefcake, and Magic Mike seemed like the kind of film that pushes a man like Tatum to the next level of his career. I knew I'd likely be the only straight male in the theater (as it was a matinee, I turned out to be the only male, period), but I was ready to see something completely different at the cinema this week.

Yes, there is quite a bit of this going on.
And boy, do Tatum and company deliver. Our star plays the titular Magic Mike, a man of many hats. He runs several small businesses, but makes most of his money as a male stripper (I don't think the term "exotic dancer" is ever used; these guys know their job) at Xquisite, a popular club run by unscrupulous manager Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). But what Mike really wants to do, what he has been working hard to do for the past decade, is make custom furniture from broken and discarded items. He's been steadily saving his money, but so far has not been able to get the concept off the ground. When he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a slacker with no idea what he wants in life, he takes the young man under his wing and introduces him to the business, which Adam gradually gets into despite the disapproval from his sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Xquisite's business is rapidly growing and Dallas is looking to change venues to the more populous and popular Miami. This excites most of the dancers, but Mike is slowly coming to the realization that he doesn't want to be a stripper his whole life, and is ready to settle down. But with the job being seriously lucrative and banks not lending him money to pursue his dreams, how can he possibly step away?

Yes, McConaughey actually dressed like that in the morning.
On one level, it would be easy to label this a movie for women and gay men and leave it at that. In fact, a lot of people believed just that, as ladies made up something like 75% of last weekend's box office for Magic Mike. When you have this much bared male flesh on the big screen, that's just going to happen. But underneath the rippling chests of guys like True Blood's Joe Manganiello or White Collar's Matt Bomer - not to mention the threat of cliched romantic comedy by Tatum and Horn - beats a story about brotherhood, of guys who do what they do to make money, meet women and have fun. Very little of the events depicted here are actually based on Tatum's experiences in the business, but Soderbergh I think does a good job of looking at the industry from multiple angles, from the highs (money, women) to the lows (drugs, dead-end prospects, damaged relationships) with an honest and nonjudgmental eye. Sure, most of the veteran strippers enjoy their jobs, but it's the transformation of Adam in which we see how much it can change a person over even a short period of time. The story makes for something of a cautionary tale, albeit not one nearly so preachy as you might expect.

Even the ladies get in on the skin-baring act.
Both the acting and dancing are top notch and excellently choreographed, and Soderbergh deserves credit for really putting a team of talented performers together and making Magic Mike a full package deal. Tatum continues his incredible run, oozing his usual charm but creating a clear separation in his personality between his civilian life and what he does for a job. Though it might be due to Tatum's experience, Mike might be his deepest and most resonating character to this point, and it is primarily his contributions that make this so much more than a chick flick. I didn't think Cody Horn had a whole lot to do, but Brooke's serious, no-nonsense attitude makes a nice foil for the more laid-back Mike and Adam. And yet she's not such a different or ignorant creature that a pairing between Mike and Brooke is impossible, which is good as the film forces the idea upon us whenever they share the screen.

All he's missing are the bongos...
As for the rest of the cast, most of them have little to do besides reside in states of near-undress, but at least there's a variation in what they bring to the table. I still think Alex Pettyfer is a far more a talented actor than he has been given credit, but lousy box office returns tend to sour you in the face of Hollywood execs. Still, his villainous turn in last year's In Time was the perfect example of lightning in in a bottle, and he continues that trend as a failed college athlete who lacks the drive or commitment to make it in the real world. His is no obvious transformation, but a subtle one that doesn't change the personality of his character, but exploits his already-prevalent weaknesses over the course of the script. In all, a brilliant turn. McConaughey doesn't bring anything new, but is perfectly cast for his southern drawl and ability to pull off a thong. Olivia Munn's topless scene should be all guys need to get into the theater, and her role as a psychology student who met Mike while studying the emotional stability of strippers isn't half bad, to boot. Finally, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer and Adam Rodriguez can be applauded for their additions to the cast, even if most of their character development seems to have been scrapped in favor of seriously excellent dance moves.

"Now remember, they have to reach into your pocket to get the candy."
Magic Mike is certainly no fluff piece. The stripping scenes might be outrageous, the romance might be a little forced, and the twists might be somewhat predictable, but this is the type of film that rides high on character and charm, both of which it has in spades. Tatum once again scores, and it would be great if his surprising 2012 could serve as a launching pad for the young man to achieve greater things. It's not often when I am wrong (and even less so when I admit it), but Tatum actually seems to be turning into something special, not just a pretty, unproven face. As far as Magic Mike goes, he MADE it, and if he continues to work with talented directors like Soderbergh and with choice casts like the one here, there's simply no limit to how far he can go.


jimmygerms said...

I love reading your reviews. But did you purposefully call magic Mike a full package deal? #giggling.

Mr. Anderson said...

Wow, I wish I had been so aware as to purposely make that statement. Sadly, it was just a perfectly appropriate coincidence.