Some of my best friends are strippers, so I was excited to hear that something of their interesting world was coming to the screen. Magic Mike is based on Channing Tatum’s actual experience of working as an exotic dancer when he was young and starving, so the chances are that this thing might be fairly realistic.
There’s two ways director Steven Soderbergh could have massaged the material: glamorized it, and possibly lured alarming numbers of young men into sex work, like Top Gun spiked air force recruitment rates; or made a cautionary tale–empty people leading empty lives ending up badly, like most Hollywood movies about sex and drugs. Is it weird that he seems to be doing both? Or is that just realism?
Alex Pettyfer, looking way older than 19, plays the 19-year-old slacker who is drawn into stripping by a guy he meets on a roofing job. Channing Tatum, looking way younger than 30, plays the 30-year-old guy—stage name “Magic Mike”—who is using stripping to amass savings to start his custom furniture business. There are also half a dozen other guys in the movie, all hot. You’d think it’d be sexy. You’d think anything with that werewolf—Joe Manganiello—from True Blood in it, would be. But there’s something just too sad about the whole enterprise to make it erotic. Despite the fact that the movie is pretty funny, it’s still a downer.
Is it good? It reminds me of Seventies films, like early Scorsese, Cassavettes or thinner-textured Altman. It feels loose and specific. Not set in some generic place palatable to the huge overseas market, but very Tampa-esque. The acting in the quiet scenes is stellar. Tatum surprised the hell out of me. If the academy weren’t so prudish and earnest, he’d be getting an oscar nod—let’s see what happens come next March. The love interest, well, one of them, is played by Cody Horn, and her naturalness is remarkable, like a prettier Sissy Spacek or a plainer Jessica Lange. Every nod, every giggle, every pause, every mumble is loaded with feeling, and none of it feels forced. I predict great things from her.
Of course, the quiet, serious moments are interspersed with hilarious, naked-Glee-type numbers. Again, Tatum amazes. I’d forgotten he’d begun his career with some dance roles. He can move! The choreography and the costuming are just skilful enough to be wildly entertaining, and just awkward enough to be funny and believable. But again, nothing can cut the sadness.
In some ways it reminded me of Raging Bull. Maybe it’s the Raging Bull of stripper movies. A smart movie about dumb fucks, which makes you wonder half the time: Why the hell am I watching this; and the other half: How come it’s so moving? There are a third set of scenes of debauchery around sex and drugs, and again, half glamorize it and half caution us against it. Again: Realism? Or confused purposes.
The audience of women at the exotic dancing club looks a lot of the time as if a convention of models is in town. I guess there are a lot of pretty bachelorette parties that wind their way into clubs like that. But it honestly feels a little fake. The odd time they drag a plump housewife up on stage, but usually to ramp up the comedy. It feels despicable. Fat=funny. One puts Joe Manganiello’s back out. As if! Have you seen that back?
It has come time to speak of Matthew McConaughey. It’s his Tom-Cruise-in-Magnolia role. I’ve always found him ugly—that hair! Please. And here he’s playing a character that is ugly to the core. It suits him. You want to rinse off every time he’s on-screen. He plays the repulsive club owner with menace and zest. He’s a bit like the emcee in Cabaret, only buff. Creepy and skillful.
In the end, like I keep saying, it made me sad. I’m not sure if it’s because of the movie itself or because of the way the world is—people don’t know what to do with themselves and act thoughtlessly so much of the time. One of the characters is poised to move on—I won’t give it away, although you can see it coming for hours—but it’s hard to work up any enthusiasm because the movie has convinced you that despite the shiny surface, or the oily muscled surface, the world is an ugly place.